Julian Assange’s Asylum Gamble: End of the Wikileaks Saga?

This may be the Wikileaks hacktivist’s endgame: a last-ditch effort to find refuge with the Ecuadorian government. Mac Margolis on how Assange’s dangerous game might play out

Rodrigo Buendia, AFP / Getty Images

In a modest first-floor flat of a five-story redbrick townhouse, just south of Hyde Park and behind a Harrods store, the world’s most prized fugitive brushes up on Spanish as he plots his getaway. Since June 19, Wikileaks editor Julian Assange, whose hard drive is the nightmare of some of the world’s most powerful leaders, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in a bid to gain asylum.

Wanted in Sweden for questioning in a 2010 case of sexual assault, the silver-haired, 40-year-old Australian political hacktivist has been playing cat and mouse with international law enforcement ever since. His plea for a haven in a small, poor Andean nation may well be his emblematic endgame.

British authorities have ordered Assange back to Sweden and delivered a letter in his name to the Ecuadorian mission in Knightsbridge, summoning him to the Belgravia police station in London this Friday. Assange, apparently, has no intention of keeping the appointment, which his supporters describe as the first step on an inexorable path to extradition.

The asylum bid puts both Assange and his prospective hosts in a predicament. For the founder of Wikileaks, wanted by Swedish prosecutors and now officially unwelcome in Great Britain, the asylum gamble may be his last, best bet to beat jail. Thanks to the rituals of international diplomacy, he is untouchable as long as he remains inside the foreign mission, and Assange is working the media and political militants to turn that cramped patch of extraterritoriality into a defense bunker.

What’s more, Assange’s boosters fear that Sweden is a Trojan Horse from Washington, which wants the activist to answer to U.S. courts for stealing government documents, a national security offense that could earn him life in prison or possibly even the death penalty. If Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), head of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, has her way, that is exactly what would happen.

“I believe Mr Assange has knowingly obtained and disseminated classified information which could cause injury to the United States,” Feinstein told the Sydney Morning Herald in a written statement. ”He has caused serious harm to U.S. national security, and he should be prosecuted accordingly.”

That outcome is by no means certain. Stockholm’s accord with Washington excludes the extradition of political fugitives. But the mere prospect has mobilized a cast of international celebrities and public intellectuals, such as Hollywood star Danny Glover, filmmaker Michael Moore, and leftwing linguist Noam Chomsky, all of whom champion Assange as a prisoner of conscience. Assange also has been blitzed by some 10,000 messages supporting his cause and urging Ecuador to grant him asylum.

On the surface, Assange’s choice of destination seems perfectly logical. In May, he hosted a lengthy, softball interview with Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa on his webcast, the Julian Assange Show. Correa, for his part, is a declared admirer of the Wikileaks impresario, whom he branded the “emblem of unlimited freedom of expression.”

“Either Julian Assange is crazy or all those people [involved in prosecuting him] are lying, and we know the right answer: these people lie, lie, and don’t stop lying,” Correa said recently in a nationwide television broadcast.

That may be one of the big reasons why the Australian decided to appeal his case to Quito. Another is that Correa also is a virulent critic of the U.S. government. Like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the Ecuadorian storngman rarely misses a chance to nettle Washington, and now with Chavez battling cancer, speculation is rife that Correa is the lead candidate for Latin America’s next yanqui-basher-in-chief.

Still, mouthing off against gringo imperialism is one thing. It’s quite another to harbor an international fugitive dedicated to airing purloined state secrets of the most powerful governments on the planet. Raising the ante for Correa is the prospect of Assange turning this aerie in the Andes into a global headquarters for Wikileaks, with access to the web but out of reach of the skein of international treaties and law enforcement. Is Correa ready to convert his impoverished nation into a digital missile silo aimed at the giant in El Norte?

As a professional hacktivist and full-time pamphleteer, Assange is a poor fit for Ecuador, a nation that Correa has taken pains to convert into a full partner of Chavez’s “Bolivarian” movement toward “21st century socialism.” While Assange has hoisted Wikileaks to prominence by exposing classified documents of the high and mighty, Correa has spent much of his time as president crushing dissent, concentrating power, and subverting the courts to silence critics.

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Earlier this year, infuriated over an opinion piece in the El Universo newspaper, Correa filed a $40 million dollar defamation suit against the owners of the Guayaquil daily, a penalty which would have shut down the paper. An acting appeals court magristrate friendly to the Correa government also condemned El Universo editorial writer Emilio Palacio to three years in jail after a hurried trial in which Palacio was unable to fully present his case and the verdict was delivered in record time. “The court issued a 150-page decision, written in 24 hours,” says Sandra Grossman, an immigration attorney for Palacio, who filed for asylum in the U.S. earlier this year.

“His prosecution was meant to silence him and independent media,” she told The Daily Beast. “The message was clear, ‘Look what will happen to you if you say what you think.’”

After an international media firestorm, Correa dropped the suits against Palacio and his newspaper. But the message was not lost on the Ecuadorian media, which has been more circumspect since. The case history might make for interesting reading while Wikileaks’ jefe awaits Ecuador’s verdict on asylum.