- Trying to get asylum in Ecuador is "a very smart move" for Assange, expert says
- Ecuador's left leaning president has railed against the U.S, like Assange
- Rafael Correa recently appeared on Assange television show, and the two appeared to have a rapport
- If Assange tries to leave England, it could lead to a diplomatic and legal "mess," expert says
Time was running out for Julian Assange. If the WikiLeaks frontman was going to make a move it would be soon.
Just days before Assange had lost his final bid in Britain's highest court to stop his extradition to Sweden for questioning about sexual assault allegations. The court had set a July 7 deadline.
Though the sexual misconduct case has nothing to do with WikiLeaks, some of his supporters believe that if Assange is sent to Sweden, he would be vulnerable to extradition to the United States. WikiLeaks published a trove of State Department cables and secret documents, some of them classified, about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Assange is not currently facing criminal charges in the U.S.
So where in the world should Assange turn for refuge? He picked Ecuador, which has just approved his request for asylum.
"It's a very smart move to go there. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Assange have mutual interests -- they both support the idea that the U.S. is an imperial power that has to be checked," said Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian international lawyer who's worked high profile cases involving Latin America, Russia and Thailand. He said the information contained in the cables WikiLeaks released has helped in some of his cases.
Correa, a left-leaning economist, has railed against the United States in concert with allies in the region and elsewhere -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolvia's Evo Morales, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
As far as angering the British government, Correa has shown he doesn't mind doing that. In February, Correa called for sanctions against Britain for its long-running dispute with Argentina over who owns the Falkland Islands.
"From a Latin perspective, what a glorious thing to get Assange," Amsterdam said. "You don't have to be even anti-American to want to do that. When I'm in Guatemala, they still call the (U.S.) 'the empire.' There really is an almost universal hostility toward American foreign policy. Assange would be welcomed in many countries just for that fact."
Jorge Leon, an Ecuadorian political analyst who lives in Quito, said that with presidential elections in Ecuador scheduled for next February giving Assange asylum in the country could be "useful to Correa to give himself a leftist image."
"A lot of his base is leftist," said Leon. "He has to feed that base."
Correa and Assange
Ecuadorian president Correa recently appeared on Assange's new television show, "The World Tomorrow," which began broadcasting in April on R-TV, Russia's state-funded English language channel.
Assange introduced his guest by calling Correa "a transformative leader," and pointed out that Correa expelled the U.S. ambassador after reports that a WikiLeaks State Department cable showed that the American ambassador was concerned about an allegedly corrupt high ranking police official. The cable, published by Spanish newspaper El Pais, said Correa was aware of corruption by the police high command.
The website of Assange's TV show described it differently, saying the cable showed the U.S. "embassy exercising influence over members of the Ecuadorian police force."
"Your WikiLeaks has made us stronger!" Correa told Assange.
Assange and Correa seemed to have a rapport, praising each other and at times laughing like old friends who shared inside jokes.
Assange began the interview by asking Correa what he thinks of the United States.
Correa answered by accusing the U.S. of meddling in Ecuador's police force, yet then said the countries have a relationship based on "affection and friendship."
Correa went on to say he lived in the U.S. for four years and got two academic degrees in the U.S.
"I love and admire the American people a great deal," he said. "The last thing I'd be is anti-American, but I will always call a spade a spade."
Later in the interview, Correa laughs about his decision not to renew the U.S. Southern Command's lease of Eloy Alfaro Air Base in Manta, which ended U.S. occupancy of the base in 2009.
Correa sarcastically suggested that he should be able to keep a base in Miami.
"I'm enjoying your jokes a great deal," Assange told the Ecuadorian president.
A press freedom fighter in Ecuador?
"That interview was just Assange asking Correa a bunch of softball questions," said Adam Isacson of the Regional Security Policy Program of human rights group Washington Office on Latin America.
Isacson and other experts point out that Correa loves disclosures when it suits him, but he has one of the worst reputations in Latin America for cracking down on journalists. Correa has filed defamation complaints against journalists who criticized him, forced independent radio and television stations to air lengthy rebuttals of critical reports, pre-empted programming and temporarily shut some stations down, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a June 9 radio address, Correa asked government ministers to stop granting interviews to private media because those outlets are "corrupt."
Wouldn't that bother Assange, a self-professed pillar of the free press? Well, experts say, Assange's show is broadcast by a network financed by the Kremlin and Russia isn't known for its press freedoms.
Standing up for freedom of the press may seem less important to Assange than saving himself right now, said Amsterdam.
"If he winds up getting extradited to the U.S. many people believe he'd never see the light of day again," the attorney said.
"Assange is in a very dangerous place," Amsterdam said.
But he said he feels the information disclosed by the WikiLeaks releases has "been incredible. It's so important."
A legal and diplomatic 'mess'
If Assange thought he was in trouble by staying in Britain, he could be in even more trouble if he tries to leave, said international human rights attorney Jared Genser.
Genser is best known for helping to free Burmese Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
"The big challenge would be getting Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to Ecuador. It would be very difficult," Genser said. "He could end up spending years living in the embassy as the Brits aren't likely to look too kindly on this stunt and the Ecuadorians might provide him protection in their mission.
"But it would be much more difficult to get him out and to a private plane to transit to Ecuador."
Assange is subject to arrest by British authorities for violating a bail requirement that he spend every night at the home outside London, police said in June. In a written statement, London Metropolitan police said that they were notified Assange may have breached one of the conditions of his bail.
If Assange shows up in Ecuador there could be criminal repercussions and diplomatic repercussions.
"If a fugitive were to show up in Ecuador after escaping from British territory and be protected by the Ecuador authorities, it would be a diplomatic mess," Isacson said.
"If Assange arrives in Ecuador, the first thing the Brits would probably do is remove their ambassador from Ecuador," he said.
It would also mean American officials, experts said, would inevitably have to start talking about Assange again, two years after the WikiLeaker first became a thorn in their side by releasing his first batch of secret U.S. documents.