If one asks current or former WikiLeaks associates what their greatest fear is, almost none cites prosecution by their own country. Most trust their own nation's justice system to recognize that they have committed no crime. The primary fear is being turned over to the US. That is the crucial context for understanding Julian Assange's 16-month fight to avoid extradition to Sweden, a fight that led him to seek asylum, Tuesday, in the London Embassy of Ecuador.
The evidence that the US seeks to prosecute and extradite Assange is substantial. There is no question that the Obama justice department has convened an active grand jury to investigate whether WikiLeaks violated the draconian Espionage Act of 1917. Key senators from President Obama's party, including Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, have publicly called for his prosecution under that statute. A leaked email from the security firm Stratfor – hardly a dispositive source, but still probative – indicated that a sealed indictment has already been obtained against him. Prominent American figures in both parties have& demanded Assange's lifelong imprisonment, called him a terrorist, and even advocated his assassination.
For several reasons, Assange has long feared that the US would be able to coerce Sweden into handing him over far more easily than if he were in Britain. For one, smaller countries such as Sweden are generally more susceptible to American pressure and bullying.
For another, that country has a disturbing history of lawlessly handing over suspects to the US. A 2006 UN ruling& found Sweden in violation of the global ban on torture for helping the CIA render two suspected terrorists to Egypt, where they were brutally tortured (both individuals, asylum-seekers in Sweden, were ultimately found to be innocent of any connection to terrorism and received a monetary settlement from the Swedish government).
Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Swedish law permits extreme levels of secrecy in judicial proceedings and oppressive pre-trial conditions, enabling any Swedish-US transactions concerning Assange to be conducted beyond public scrutiny. Ironically, even the US State Department condemned Sweden's "restrictive conditions for prisoners held in pretrial custody", including severe restrictions on their communications with the outside world.
Assange's fear of ending up in the clutches of the US is plainly rational and well-grounded. One need only look at the treatment over the last decade of foreign nationals accused of harming American national security to know that's true; such individuals are still routinely imprisoned for lengthy periods without any charges or due process. Or consider the treatment of Bradley Manning, accused of leaking to WikiLeaks: a formal UN investigation found that his pre-trial conditions of severe solitary confinement were "cruel, inhuman and degrading", and he now faces capital charges of aiding al-Qaida. The Obama administration's unprecedented obsession with persecuting whistleblowers and preventing transparency – what even generally supportive, liberal magazines call "Obama's war on whistleblowers" – makes those concerns all the more valid.
No responsible person should have formed a judgment one way or the other as to whether Assange is guilty of anything in Sweden. He has not even been charged, let alone tried or convicted, of sexual assault, and he is entitled to a presumption of innocence. The accusations made against him are serious ones, and deserve to be taken seriously and accorded a fair and legal resolution.
But the WikiLeaks founder, like everyone else, is fully entitled to invoke all of his legal rights, and it's profoundly reckless and irresponsible to suggest, as some have, that he has done anything wrong by doing so. Seeking asylum on the grounds of claimed human rights violations is a longstanding and well-recognized right in international law. It is unseemly, at best, to insist that he forego his rights in order to herd him as quickly as possible to Sweden.
Assange is not a fugitive and has not fled. Everyone knows where he is. If Ecuador rejects his asylum request, he will be right back in the hands of British authorities, who will presumably extradite him to Sweden without delay. At every step of the process, he has adhered to, rather than violated, the rule of law. His asylum request of yesterday is no exception.
Julian Assange has sparked intense personal animosity, especially in media circles – a revealing irony, given that he has helped to bring about more transparency and generated more newsworthy scoops than all media outlets combined over the last several years. That animosity often leads media commentators to toss aside their professed beliefs and principles out of an eagerness to see him shamed or punished.
But ego clashes and media personality conflicts are pitifully trivial when weighed against what is at stake in this case: both for Assange personally and for the greater cause of transparency. If he's guilty of any crimes in Sweden, he should be held to account. But until then, he has every right to invoke the legal protections available to everyone else. Even more so, as a foreign national accused of harming US national security, he has every reason to want to avoid ending up in the travesty known as the American judicial system.