Since June 19, WikiLeaks whistle-blower Julian Assange has eluded the British authorities by secreting himself within the diplomatically shielded Ecuadorian embassy in London. On June 14, Assange’s final appeal against his extradition to Sweden was rejected by the British courts, and he was ordered to surrender himself to the police on June 29. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa may well grant Assange’s request for permanent political asylum. Correa is a vociferous critic of American interventionism within Latin America.
Given that the embassy is Ecuadorian, the nation is England, and the charges are Swedish, why does America inevitably enter any discussion of Assange? In a word, “extradition.”
The hunt for Assange
Various authorities have pursued Assange around the world for years now, even though there were no criminal convictions or charges against him. (An arrest in absentia has been lodged by Sweden subsequent to his refusal to be extradited.)
The clear reason for this hunt was and is Assange’s pivotal role in WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of diplomatic documents that profoundly embarrassed the American government (among others) by spotlighting corruption and duplicity. American politicians and military officials were especially outraged by the April 2010 release of the video “Collateral Murder.” The video shows a 2007 American attack in which Iraqi civilians were killed, including two Reuters journalists.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian (May 4, 2010) commented,
Reuters demanded an investigation in the summer of 2007, and asked for copies of the video the choppers took. The government refused. But after three years, a copy of the video has finally been released — through WikiLeaks. The chilling footage shows the helicopters firing on seemingly unsuspecting Iraqi civilians — and includes the helicopter crew’s comments, which are even more chilling.
It’s as if the gunners were playing a video game, as if they didn’t consider the people on the ground to be living human beings. “Oh, look at those dead bastards,” one crewman says. At another point, the gunners — who aren’t allowed to fire at unarmed targets — practically beg a wounded man to pick up a weapon so they can finish him off. And when the man gets into a van that arrives to help him, they ask for permission to open fire: “Come on, let us shoot!”
Of course, Assange’s Swedish extradition order was not officially connected to WikiLeaks; it was allegedly based on a need to question him on unrelated accusations of rape. The extraordinary measures employed, however, belie the idea that the prosecutor is merely conducting a preliminary investigation on whether a sex case is prosecutable.
According to written testimony by former Stockholm chief district prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem, the handling of the Assange investigation by authorities has violated Swedish law and procedures in several ways. For example, Alhem declared the “confirmation of the identity of a suspect to the media” to be “completely against proper procedure and in violation of the Swedish law and rules regarding preliminary investigations,” which require confidentiality.
Alhem continued, “In my opinion, a reasonable and professional prosecutor would have sought to interview Mr. Assange in London” in order to determine if a prosecutable case existed. In response to the prosecutor’s claim that Swedish law required questioning on Swedish soil, Alhem stated, “there is … nothing in Swedish law that I know of to prevent a prosecutor” from seeking assistance from the authorities of another nation to interview a suspect on foreign soil.
He concluded, “a prosecutor should not seek to arrest and extradite Mr. Assange simply for the purposes of questioning as long as other means have not been tried.” Indeed, the British authorities have demonstrated their willingness to cooperate by placing Assange under house arrest in 2010.
Making sense of why such dramatic steps were taken to obtain Assange’s person leads back to familiar words — “America” and “extradition.” Once he is on Swedish soil, Assange could be imprisoned immediately while legal matters are conducted in the background without media attention. The highest legal priority is likely to be extradition to the United States, where such powerful political figures as Diane Feinstein, Democrat and chair of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, have been trying for years to find grounds to prosecute Assange for treason under the Espionage Act.
Prosecuting Assange is legally problematic. Treason — the crime of betraying your own nation — is defined by the United States Code, Title 18, Part I, which declares that the crime applies to “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies.” But Assange is Australian and so owes no allegiance to the United States.
Nonetheless, according to confidential emails posted at WikiLeaks’ site The Global Intelligence Files, the U.S. government has had a secret indictment against Assange for more than 12 months that could be produced in a flash should Assange arrive on Swedish soil.
Fred Burton, Stratfor’s Vice-President for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security, is a former Deputy Chief of the Department of State’s (DoS) counterterrorism division for the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).
In early 2011, Burton revealed in internal Stratfor correspondence that a secret Grand Jury had already issued a sealed indictment for Assange: “Not for Pub — We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.” According to Burton: “Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He’ll be eating cat food forever.” A few weeks earlier, following Julian Assange’s release from a London jail, where he had been remanded as a result of a Swedish prosecutor’s arrest warrant, Fred Burton told SkyNews: “extradition [to the US is] more and more likely.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents WikiLeaks and Assange, has condemned the sealed indictment. CCR claims the indictment underscores “the very thing WikiLeaks has been fighting against: abuses the government commits in an environment of secrecy and expansive, reflexive calls for ‘national security.’”
Why Sweden and not the UK?
If the United States has an indictment that could be activated at any time, why wait for extradition to Sweden? After all, the U.K. is a staunch ally of America and therefore likely to comply with extradition. There are several reasons for the United States to prefer a Swedish extradition.
First, the Swedish claims have been “in play” since before the sealed indictment. FOX News reports a comment by John Bellinger, a former legal adviser to the U.S. State Department.
If the Justice Department were actually to issue charges against Mr. Assange while he was still in Britain there could be potentially a decision for the U.K. government whether to extradite him to Sweden or to the United States, and that could get to be a complicated clash between the two different requests which would put the U.K. government in a difficult position.
Second, as the Justice for Assange website states, “The UK’s judicial review process, while far from perfect, has a number of practical review mechanisms. The nearest equivalent case, of Gary McKinnon – a UK citizen who has been charged for hacking US military systems – has been opposed in the courts for 8 years.” Both sides acknowledge that McKinnon was seeking information to feed his passion for UFOs; nevertheless he faces up to six decades imprisonment on American soil.
Third, a handful of cases similar to McKinnon’s are causing a backlash in British public opinion. When the U.S. recently won the “right” to extradite a 23-year-old student for running a UK-based website that linked to external pages with copyrighted material, it raised a furious debate on whether the extradition treaty was fair.
Fourth, the British media, public opinion, and court system are more favorable to Assange than their Swedish counterparts are. A strategic extradition would be considerably more difficult in the United Kingdom.
A flip of the coin on Assange’s future
It all hinges on whether Ecuador will grant asylum to Assange. Although he has been in its embassy for over a month, Ecuador may well delay making a decision. As long as Ecuador is deliberating, it faces few international consequences, and Assange remains safe.
If I had to wager, I would bet on Ecuador granting asylum. It is not merely that President Correa roundly dislikes the United States. Nor that Assange has a strong case for being politically persecuted. As José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas Watch division of Human Rights Watch, commented,
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.
It would be a PR coup for Ecuador to become the protector of free speech against a censorious United States. It would also raise Ecuador’s status in Latin America. Assange’s persecution is unpopular in the region. In 2010, then president Lula da Silva of Brazil referred to Assange’s arrest as “an attack on freedom of expression.”
If asylum is denied, then Assange’s path will almost inevitably lead to the United States. He may or may not be tried for treason or for the theft of government documents. He could simply receive the same treatment as Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the leaked documents about which the U.S. government is so incensed.
Manning has been imprisoned for two years without trial, almost one year of which was passed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day; he was left in the cell and awoken every five minutes in an attempt to make him implicate Assange. In March 2012, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture formally called Manning’s treatment cruel, inhuman, degrading, and a violation of his human rights. Assange could simply be kept for years in solitary confinement without trial.
In a statement delivered on July 2 outside the Ecuadorian embassy, Susan Benn of the Julian Assange Defense Fund noted the determination of the U.S. government to prosecute Assange. She stated,
the FBI file about the investigation has now reached 42,135 pages. The US department of justice admitted yesterday that its investigation into WikiLeaks proceeds. It is only a matter of time before US authorities begin extradition proceedings against Julian and other leading members of WikiLeaks on various charges including conspiracy to commit espionage.
Meanwhile, Assange is gearing up for a fight. Agence France-Press (July 18) reported, “WikiLeaks said Wednesday that it had found a way to get around the banking blockade that has dramatically cut its donations over the last 18 months.” The blockade against WikiLeaks had been led by “US financial giants VISA and MasterCard.” Now WikiLeaks intends to use “a French affiliate of Visa” that “VISA and MasterCard are contractually barred from directly cutting off.” WikiLeaks claims that the blockade reduced their donations by over 90 percent.
Of the blockade and those who capitulate to it, Assange declared, “Let them demonstrate to the world once again their corrupt pandering to Washington. We’re waiting. Our lawyers are waiting.”
With money in his pocket, Assange may be able to perform the legally miraculous act of beating the U.S. government.