The political asylum of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has become increasingly tentative as the Ecuadorian government succumbs to pressure from the U.K., U.S., and Spanish governments. Recent tensions have risen since Assange breached an agreement not to tweet content that could put in jeopardy “at risk good relations which [Ecuador] has with the U.K., the rest of the E.U. and other nations.” Electronic jammers were used to disable Assange’s phone and Internet access. For the past six weeks, the embassy has also refused Assange the right to receive guests, further concretizing his effective imprisonment. Assange has resided in London’s Ecuadorian embassy since 2012, since leaving would mean a certain extradition to the U.S. to be prosecuted on charges of espionage, on the grounds of the British-U.S. extradition treaty. Once adamant in resisting U.S. political pressure, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, has recently inferred that Assange’s refugee status may be reneged.
Following a discussion with the British government, Fernanda Espinosa voiced plans to reach a “definite agreement” and “resolve” the terms of Assange’s residency at the Embassy. In addition, the former CIA Director and current U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, recently criticized the Ecuadorian government for harbouring a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” whose prosecution was a “priority.” Meanwhile, an appeal to the Ecuadorian government for stronger guarantees of Assange’s safety has drawn diverse signatories, ranging from Pamela Anderson to Noam Chomsky. The letter states, “if the E.U. and the U.K. continue to participate in the scandalous silencing of a true dissident in their midst, it will mean that free speech is indeed dying in Europe…If there is no freedom of speech for Julian Assange, there is no freedom of speech for any of us.”
The U.N. has mandated Assange’s release, ruling on two occasions that charges against him were groundless, rendering his detention arbitrary and unlawful. However, the installation of Ecuador’s current President, Lenin Moreno, has signalled a policy change in relation to Assange’s humanitarian asylum. Moreno has previously characterized Assange as an ‘inherited problem’ and a ‘stone in the shoe’ of Ecuador. Moreno’s personal distaste for Assange, in conjunction with Ecuador’s keenness to repair vulnerable trade links with the U.S. places, Assange’s political asylum status in jeopardy.
Assange’s fear of indictment before a sealed grand jury in the U.S. is warranted, as the prosecution of whistleblowers has proceeded with a distinct lack of transparency in the past. To date, the Department of Justice has invoked the WW1-era Espionage act on nine occasions in order to deter dissidents who speak out against America’s human rights abuses. When looking at the original sentence of thirty-five years imprisonment handed down to Chelsea Manning for leaking 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks, it becomes clear that sentences for whistleblowers radically outstrip the sentences given to the perpetrators of the human rights abuses they expose. Indeed, a guilty verdict for Assange would likely translate to life imprisonment or death.
Without a commitment by the U.S. of a fair and transparent trial, Ecuador is obliged to uphold and protect Assange’s residency under the U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. As Fernanda Espinosa continues her campaign to become the 73rd president of the U.N. general assembly, it is imperative that she regards Moreno’s stance on Assange’s asylum critically. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to consciously reimagine its policy on whistleblowers in such a way that more fairly distinguishes between human rights abuse and the publication of private information.