Julian Assange has applied for political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London – a refuge that has been called an “ironic” choice for the whistleblower, given Ecuador’s poor press freedom record, and its president’s open contempt for the non-state media.
Ecuador’s administration “appears to have a warm relationship with Mr. Assange,” and has agreed to consider the application, according to The New York Times. The WikiLeaks founder will remain at the country's embassy in Knightsbridge, where he arrived in person Tuesday evening, until authorities have reached a decision, reported Wired.
"I think this is ironic that you have a journalist, or an activist, seeking political asylum from a government that has – after Cuba – the poorest record of free speech in the region, and the practice of persecuting local journalists when the government is upset by their opinions or their research," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, according to the Guardian.
Facing extradition to Sweden by midnight on July 7th, Assange reportedly fears that he could subsequently be extradited to the United States, where a grand jury is said to be investigating him over WikiLeaks’ release of classified cables. Bradley Manning, the US soldier alleged to have leaked the trove of files that included war logs from US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as diplomatic cables from around the world, is facing a possible sentence of life in military custody. Assange has claimed in a statement that he is “being investigated for political crimes” in the US that carry the death penalty, according to the New York Times.
Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning in connection with allegations of sexual abuse and rape, which he denies. His native Australia has declined to grant him protection. Last week, Britain’s Supreme Court authorized the extradition; his last legal resort would be the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, at which he has been given until June 28th to lodge an appeal.
Caracterized as a “free speech and transparency crusader” by the Guardian’s Brian Braiker, who also called the Ecuadorian embassy a "counter-intuitive refuge," the WikiLeaks founder had previously joked in speeches about fleeing to Havana or Moscow, reported the New York Times.
Last month, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa appeared by video link as a guest on “The World Tomorrow,” the talk show that Assange hosts on Russia’s state-sponsored television network Russia Today. The two seemingly bonded, although “it was unclear whether any explicit or informal offer of asylum had been made by the president during the interview,” reported the Guardian.
“Are you having a lot of fun with the interview, Julian? I’m glad to hear that— me too,” said Correa a few minutes into their conversation. “I am enjoying your jokes a great deal,” replied a chuckling Assange.
In his introduction to the programme, Assange made reference to WikiLeaks, and to Correa's hostility toward the press: “According to US embassy cables, Correa is the most popular president in Ecuador’s democratic history,” he declared, continuing: “but in 2010 he was taken hostage in an attempted coup d’état. He blames the coup attempt on corrupt media and has launched a controversial counter-offensive.”
“President Correa, as you know, for many years I have been fighting a fight for freedom of expression, for the right for people to communicate, for the right to publish true information," said Assage ten minutes into the interview. "How is it that your reforms will not lead to the suppression of true information?” he asked.
“Well Julian, you are a good example of what the press is like… many books have been written about your WikiLeaks in Latin America, the last one by two Argentinian authors featuring a country by country analysis, and in the case of Ecuador, it shows how in a shameless way, the media did not publish those cables or news which affected them,” Correa replied.
Earlier in the interview, Assange’s question to Correa about the perspective of Ecuadorians on the United States and its involvement in Latin America had brought about a moment of complicity between the two public figures. “Well, as [Bolivian President] Evo Morales says, the only country that can be sure never to have a coup d’état is the United States, because it hasn’t got a US embassy,” replied Correa with a smile, provoking hearty laughter from Assange.
Correa expelled the US ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges in April 2011, after WikiLeaks made public a diplomatic cable alleging high-level police corruption in Ecuador, and suggesting that Correa may have known about it, according to The New York Times. Asked about this in the interview with Assange, Correa claimed that Hodges held extreme right-wing views and accused her of insolence.
Photo Credit: Justice4Assange. Watch the full Russia Today interview here: