Why Is Ecuador Protecting WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange?

Editor’s Note: Several guest commentators, including Latin America Initiative senior fellow Andrés Rozental, responded to questions posed by the Inter-American Dialogue’s Latin America Advisor. The full issue is available on their website.

Q: Ecuador’s foreign minister announced Aug. 16 that the South American country was granting political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who faces extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. However, authorities in Britain, where Assange has been holed up in Ecuador’s embassy since June, have refused to grant Assange safe passage out of the country and threatened to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said Sunday that Britain had withdrawn that threat. What are Ecuador’s motivations for granting asylum to Assange? How does the decision affect Ecuador’s relations with Britain, the United States and other countries? Are there larger implications of Britain’s threats to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status?

Andrés Rozental: In the first place, Mr. Assange cannot really be considered a political refugee. He is accused of crimes in Sweden and the British authorities have committed to extradite him so he can face his accusers in a Swedish court. Assange appealed the extradition as far as British law allows and lost on each occasion. His decision to seek refuge in a foreign embassy in London represents a last ditch effort to avoid being sent to Sweden, from where he fears that he might be extradited to the United States to face charges related to the WikiLeaks case.

Since American jurisprudence contemplates the death penalty for acts of treason, which Assange is accused of committing when he released the Wikileaks material publicly, his argument for requesting asylum in a foreign diplomatic mission is that he fears for his life if Sweden ever decides to send him to the United States. Assange obviously chose Ecuador’s Embassy in London for two reasons: first, because political and diplomatic asylum are a sacred institution among Latin American countries and as a rule asylum requests are granted, and secondly, given Ecuador’s current government and a relatively hostile relationship with Washington, Assange correctly assumed that he would be granted asylum by a country that is not on the friendliest terms with the United States.

The British government’s threats to withdraw diplomatic status from Ecuador’s mission in London and enter the premises to arrest Assange created such a negative reaction, both inside the United Kingdom and abroad, that London was forced to retract them over the weekend. For the next step, one can only assume that British authorities will begin a process of negotiation with Ecuador to try to resolve the impasse, but in the meantime, Mr. Assange might become a semi-permanent guest of Ecuador’s ambassador in London while a solution is found. If the Swedish government gives Assange guarantees that he won’t be sent to the United States, that might open the way for a way out.