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Julian Assange’s arrest inside the embassy of Ecuador in London would not have been possible had that country’s government not authorized the British police to enter its theoretically sovereign territory. The lesson is clear: if you plan to seek asylum in a foreign embassy, you should be careful to choose the diplomatic premises of a country (a) not likely to be pressurized into betraying you; and (b) comfortable enough to make a long sojourn tolerable.
The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations reaffirmed the long-established principle of inviolability of diplomatic premises. The host-country’s police and security forces are not allowed access without a specific authorization of the chief of mission, which was granted in this case. Assange had spent almost seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, after being welcomed there by the country’s former president Rafael Correa. The hosts’ political calculus has changed to his detriment over the past two years, however.
The British police arrested Assange supposedly for skipping UK bail seven years ago, but also—and far more importantly—under a previously secret U.S. indictment. The exact charge is for conspiracy, with Chelsea Manning, to hack into a “classified U.S. government computer.” Assange lawyer Barry Pollock said the allegations “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source.” Assange had predicted that this would happen years ago, and stated it as his reason for seeking asylum in the first place.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D, W.V.) gloated “He is our property!” when told of Assange’s arrest, and he accurately reflected the sentiment shared by the entire Beltway swamp, Democrats in particular:
Assange committed the unpardonable sins of embarrassing the establishment—from members of Congress to intelligence officials to the media. And he will now be punished for our sins. Despite having significant constitutional arguments to be made, it is likely that he will be stripped of those defenses and even barred from raising the overall context of his actions in federal court. What could be the most important free speech and free press case in our history could well be reduced to the scope and substance of an unauthorized computer access case.
Before becoming a fugitive Assange had unveiled a massive, likely unconstitutional NSA surveillance program potentially affecting all Americans. He later published emails that showed that the DNC and the Clinton campaign lied in various statements to the public, including the rigging of the primary for her nomination. As USA Today columnist Jonathan Turley says, “No one has argued that any of these emails were false. They were embarrassing. Of course, there is not crime of embarrassing the establishment but that is merely a technicality.” The American media machine nevertheless views the WikiLeaks founder primarily through the lens of the 2016 election, after which he was denounced as a Russian cutout who threw that election for Trump. That is not true, but it is certain to slant much of the U.S. mainstream media coverage to Assange’s disadvantage.
The problem Assange ultimately faced was related to Ecuadorian domestic politics and the country’s external vulnerabilities. Its current president Lenin [sic!] Moreno, elected in 2017, is a Leftist who has made peace with the Empire, a la Greece’s disgusting bo-bo PM Alexis Tsipras. One of the fruits of Moreno’s volte-face has been a massive World Bank loan, which would not have been granted without Washington’s political blessing. Moreno’s decision was not legal under Ecuadorian and international law: Assange is a political refugee and the country’s government cannot rescind asylum once it is granted. In addition he was given Ecuadorian citizenship in December 2017, which theoretically should have given him an additional layer of protection. Evidently Assange should not have sought refuge in the embassy of country susceptible to American pressure.
In this context it is useful to recall the destinies of two Hungarian notables after the collapse of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. Cardinal József Mindszenty, the Roman Catholic primate of Hungary, spent 15 years in the U.S. embassy in Budapest (1956-1971). He was eventually allowed to leave, after Pope Paul VI offered a compromise declaring Mindszenty a “victim of history”—instead of communism—and annulling the excommunication imposed on his political opponents. For the rest of his life he resided in Vienna, because he took grave offense at the Vatican’s suggestion that he should give up the primacy of the Catholic Church in Hungary in exchange for uncensored publication of his memoirs . . . but all that is a minor footnote now.
As hundreds of Soviet tanks rolled from the east in the first week of November 1956 and the uprising collapsed, Hungary’s reformist Prime Minister Imre Nagy and some of his associates made the fatal mistake of seeking sanctuary in the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest. The ensuing impasse in Soviet–Yugoslav relations was ended when Nagy was forced to leave the premises, after the new government of Janos Kadar and its Soviet masters gave Tito the guarantees of safe conduct for the fugitives. They were duly arrested (as Tito knew they would be), removed to jail in Romania, and finally deported to Hungary for trial in 1957. Nagy was shot on June 17, 1958, and buried, face down, in an unmarked grave. It was only after the fall of Communism that Nagy’s grave was located and he was given a proper burial attended by 100,000 people.
Assange will not be executed, but his fate will be unpleasant. A hint of what awaits him came when he was taken to Westminster Magistrates’ Court and found guilty of breaching bail only hours after his arrest. He denied the offense, with his lawyers arguing that he had a reasonable excuse and he could not expect a fair trial in Britain as its purpose was to “secure his delivery” to the United States. District Judge Michael Snow described the defense as laughable, adding: “Mr Assange’s behaviour is that of a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests. He hasn’t come close to establishing reasonable excuse.” He remanded Assange in custody ahead of a future sentencing hearing at Southwark Crown Court.
Assange will not be executed but his fate will be unpleasant in the extreme. It is an even bet that Britain will extradite him to the U.S. In an unpleasant federal facility he will have many years, decades even (he is 47), to ponder the mistake of not seeking protection of a real country. He will be treated brutally, pour encourager les autres.
Julian Assange is not a particularly likeable man. Some of his actions may have been legally shady and morally ambivalent. In the end he deserves our sympathy because he will be pilloried by the sworn enemies of decency and civilized life.
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