According to Wikileaks’ official Twitter feed, Julian Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Tuesday.
If the Ecuadorian government approves his request, it does not guarantee diplomatic immunity for Assange, who is avoiding the British authorities for “failing to report his bail address on Tuesday.” Assange is evading extradition to Sweden for questioning about rape charges. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador will decide whether or not to grant asylum.
“A successful asylum bid does not change the fact that he has breached his bail conditions,” states Scotland Yard.
For a journalist, choosing to relocate to Ecuador is a strange move given the nation’s track record with freedom of expression and media censorship.
According to Human Rights Watch, five journalists were jailed for defaming public authorities, along with 18 others who face similar charges, since 2008. In July of 2011, Emilio Palacio, a columnist for El Universo, was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $40 million for his article on the police revolt of September 2010, in which he called Correa “a dictator.”
No matter the risk associated with Assange’s decision, it is important to recognize his relationship with Correa. Last month, the president was interviewed on Assange’s show for the Russian network, RT. They spoke about diplomatic relations between Ecuador and the United States, and Correa’s media “reforms,” which consist of heavy crackdown on media companies.
Wikileaks’ cables put the Correa administration in a tough spot. Correa told Assange that “media power … was, and it probably is, greater than political power.” Ironically, Assange is known for his controversial statement that Wikileaks cables helped bring down oppressive dictatorships. Again, it looks like Assange’s decision to move to a country inhospitable to journalists seems unwise.
However, there are strong motivations to go through with this asylum appeal. As we await the outcome of the request, here are a few rationales for it:
Asylum is his last chance to sidestep extradition to Sweden, where Assange faces rape allegations. Assange fears that the Swedish authorities may hand him over to the American government, possibly with the intention of prosecuting him under the Espionage Act. In 2010, Wikileaks exposed about 250,000 State Department cables. Investigators will look into whether Assange told Bradley Manning to leak the cables. Assange can feel safe in South America as long as Correa remains in office, which should not be too difficult, considering he is the most popular democratically-elected president of Ecuador. Assange is using the weakened diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Ecuador to his advantage, following the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador in 2011. Even if Assange may never be allowed to leave the Andean region, he doesn’t have to worry about prosecution from the U.S.
Nevertheless, Assange faces a great challenge in securing safe passage to Ecuador without possible arrest in London.