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2012-06-20

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks Seeks Asylum in Ecuador in Attempt to Avoid Extradition to U.S.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has taken refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London and asked for asylum. Assange made the move Tuesday in a last-ditch bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crime accusations. Earlier today, police in London announced Assange is now subject to arrest because his decision to spend the night at the Ecuadorian embassy violated the conditions of his bail. Assange is seeking asylum because he fears extradition to Sweden may lead to his transfer to the United States, where he could potentially face charges relating to WikiLeaks. "In my view, it is a situation of political persecution of Julian Assange for his political activities," says Michael Ratner, a member of Assange’s legal team. "It does fit within the asylum application procedure under the Declaration of Human Rights." In an apparent reference to the United States, an Ecuadorian official said Assange fears being extradited "to a country where espionage and treason are punished with the death penalty." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has taken refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London and asked for asylum. Assange made the move Tuesday in a last-ditch bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crime accusations. Earlier today, police in London announced Assange is now subject to arrest because his decision to spend the night at the Ecuadorian embassy violated the conditions of his bail.

Assange is seeking asylum because he fears extradition to Sweden may lead to his transfer to the United States, where he could potentially face charges relating to WikiLeaks. In an apparent reference to the United States, an Ecuadorian official said Assange fears being extradited, quote, "to a country where espionage and treason are punished with the death penalty." The Ecuadorian government says Assange can stay at the embassy for now as it reviews his request for asylum.

In a statement, the Ecuadorian embassy said, quote: "As a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights, with an obligation to review all applications for asylum, we have immediately passed his application on to the relevant department in Quito."

In 2010, Ecuador invited Assange to seek residency there but quickly backed away from the idea, accusing him of breaking U.S. laws.

AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’ll be joined by one of Julian Assange’s lawyers. But first I want to turn to a recent episode of Julian Assange’s TV show, The World Tomorrow, on RT, in which he interviewed Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.

JULIAN ASSANGE: President Correa, why did you want us to release all the cables?

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: [translated] Those who don’t owe anything have nothing to fear. We have nothing to hide. Your WikiLeaks have made us stronger, as the main accusations made by the American embassy were due to our excessive nationalism and defense of the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian government. Indeed, we are nationalists. Indeed, we do defend the sovereignty of our country. On the other hand, WikiLeaks wrote a lot about the goals that the national media pursue, about the power groups who seek help and report to foreign embassies. We have absolutely nothing to fear. Let them publish everything they have about the Ecuadorian government.

AMY GOODMAN: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange interviewing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on his show, The World Tomorrow, on RT.

Well, for more on Julian Assange’s decision to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy and in Ecuador, we’re joined by Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Michael, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about this surprise move of Julian Assange.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, I was completely surprised by it. In fact, I got a tweet from—or, no, a text message from you, Amy, that said, "Michael, Julian Assange has gone into the Ecuadorian embassy." So that really surprised me.

On the other hand, if you look at what he was facing, I had—I’ve been really very upset and nervous for, really, since he lost the decision in the High Court of England on the 14th of June, because here’s his situation. He’s about to be extradited now to Sweden. Sweden does not have bail. Now, these are on allegations of sex charges—allegations, no charges—and they’re to interrogate Julian Assange. But despite that, he would have been in prison in Sweden. At that point, our view is that there was a substantial chance that the U.S. would ask for his extradition to the United States. So here you have him walking the streets in London—sure, under bail conditions; going to a jail in Sweden, where he’s in prison, almost an incommunicado prison; U.S. files extradition; he remains in prison; and the next thing that happens is whatever time it takes him to fight the extradition in Sweden, he’s taken to the United States. There’s no chance then to make political asylum application any longer. In addition, once he comes to the United States—we just hold up Bradley Manning as example one of what will happen to Julian Assange: a underground cell, essentially abuse, torture, no ability to communicate with anybody, facing certainly good chance of a life sentence, with a possibility, of course, of one of these charges being a death penalty charge.

So, he was in an impossible situation. And in my view, it was a—it is a situation of political persecution of Julian Assange for his political activities. And it does fit within the asylum—the asylum application procedure under the Declaration of Human Rights, which is what President Correa and/or at least what the embassy in London was mentioning. His choices were terrible—not that they’re so great right now. I mean, now he’s in the embassy in London. He’s asked for political asylum. The Ecuadorians will decide whether to give him political asylum or not. Assuming they do, whatever time it takes, what happens then? He gets political asylum, how does he then leave the embassy? And that’s a difficult question. He made need—the Ecuadorians could ask the British for a safe passage to get him out of London and into Ecuador. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that the English could—the Britishers, the U.K., could arrest him if he tries to leave the embassy, even if it’s in a diplomatic car. And while I think that might be illegal, it’s taking a big chance. So now he is in the embassy and having to stay there indefinitely until the situation can resolve.

But let me just say, the other situation was so terrible, in my view, the extradition to Sweden, which was really—it’s not about the charges in Sweden. There’s no charges. It’s not about the allegations in Sweden or the interrogation. I think if the United States tomorrow said, "We will not be prosecuting WikiLeaks or Julian Assange, there will be no indictment of him, the grand jury is over," etc., etc., I don’t think Julian Assange—I haven’t spoken to him about this—I don’t think he would have any issue about going to Sweden for interrogation on these charges. It’s really—what this is about is the United States wanting to get their hands on him, put him into an underground cell with no communications, giving him life imprisonment. And, of course, people have already called for his death in the United States. And he was faced with really a terrible situation, considering—considering that he is the person who, as a publisher and journalist, has exposed massive U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and the WikiLeaks cables.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: His extradition proceedings were supposed to commence next week, June 28th. Do you have any idea how long an application for political asylum, such as the one that he’s filed, normally takes—I mean, for Ecuador to make a decision?

MICHAEL RATNER: I’m not sure I understood, the extradition proceedings. He was—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sorry, sending him to Sweden, the decision to—

MICHAEL RATNER: Right, the decision to go to Sweden, he would have had to be in Sweden by July 7th. So it’s very soon. You can—as people in the United States know, if you apply for political asylum, those political asylum applications can take a week, or they can drag on for two, three, four, five, six, seven years. So we don’t know what Ecuador will do. We do know that, from what you played on President Correa, that he was sympathetic to WikiLeaks, even though—it’s interesting—some of those cables skewered some of the current government in Ecuador. And in fact, the U.S. ambassador lost his job for calling some part of the Ecuadorian police corrupt. The U.S. ambassador was kicked out. So that even though some of those skewered some part of the Correa government, President Correa was willing to say, "I believe in what WikiLeaks is doing. We need transparency, and WikiLeaks is taking a very positive step."

AMY GOODMAN: For people who aren’t following this that closely, you talked about the—an indictment against—against Assange by the United States, a grand jury, a secret grand jury. What do you understand the U.S. wants with Assange? And why wouldn’t they have moved on that while he was in Britain? I mean, he wasn’t walking a free man, but he was able to walk around during the day.

MICHAEL RATNER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was home at night. So they could have gotten him any time.

MICHAEL RATNER: Right. It would have—for the U.S. to move within Britain, of course, it would have complicated matters a great deal, because then he’s facing a Swedish—a Swedish prosecution, and then the U.S. comes in. So what happens to the U.S.—to the U.S. indictment? And then, of course, Julian Assange gets notice that he’s been indicted in the United States, and of course it makes his situation more precarious. And in addition, he would have probably been able to remain on the streets in London, whereas the U.S., really, I think, probably understood that as soon as he gets into Sweden, he’s in prison, he may—those charges may not amount—not charges, those allegations may not amount to anything once he testifies, once he gives evidence, and then they can keep him in prison with this warrant.

And I also think that, if you look at the situation, Sweden versus the U.K., the U.K. can take years to get someone extradited. I mean, we know of the case—I forgot his name, but the young man who supposedly hacked into the Pentagon computer to find out about UFOs—seven, eight years on his extradition. Incredible extradition lawyers in London. It’s a big country. Sweden, whatever we think of Sweden, its justice system certainly seems to have some problems, because Julian Assange would be in jail without bail. And also, it’s a smaller country and just can be knocked around more by the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And why the U.S. wants Julian Assange? Why the U.S. would prosecute him over WikiLeaks? This is nothing to do with the sex crimes charges.

MICHAEL RATNER: No, it’s nothing, but it’s the ultimate issue in this case. The allegations about sex crimes, as I said, I think will be disposed of quickly. I don’t think those are the issues underlying. It has—it has really—

AMY GOODMAN: And we should say—I shouldn’t say "sex crimes charges" —

MICHAEL RATNER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —because he wasn’t charged.

MICHAEL RATNER: He wasn’t—

AMY GOODMAN: Allegations of sex crimes that—where he would be questioned in Sweden, and possibly let go.

MICHAEL RATNER: Oh, that’s very conceivable. I mean, it’s very conceivable. But when you say "possibly let go," it’s important to understand, he’s in prison while that proceeding is going on. The minute—the minute—there would be someone in court—assuming there’s an indictment of Julian Assange, there would be someone in court—when they say, "We order you released," they would file the warrant at that moment, and Julian Assange would not be able to leave the court, would be back in prison, and would be in the United States, where only his lawyers will probably be able to communicate with him. And I probably wouldn’t be able to say a word about what he ever said to me.

But let’s look at what he’s facing. The claim would be that he’s being investigated for espionage, essentially for transmitting, you know, quote, "secrets" of the U.S. government, that were classified, that could harm the United States in some way. And that’s the espionage indictment. That’s what Bradley Manning is being looked at for, under military law. And that’s what they would want to look at Julian Assange for. And there’s a grand jury that’s been going on really since at least 2011. We have the Stratfor emails that says that—that say that there’s a sealed indictment against Julian Assange. We have recently two people who have some association with WikiLeaks being questioned again by the FBI by—around what—about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is that?

MICHAEL RATNER: Zimmerman and McCarthy. One is from France, one is from Iceland. Again, questioned by the FBI about Julian Assange. This is an active investigation. We have, in Bradley Manning’s case, what came out at the Article 32—

AMY GOODMAN: The young U.S. private who is accused of releasing tens of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks.

MICHAEL RATNER: Right, and Bradley Manning is in a court-martial proceeding going on in Fort Meade. As part of that examination, as part of that court-martial proceeding, an FBI agent was asked about who else is being investigated here, and he said seven other civilians are being investigated with regard to—with regard to WikiLeaks. And who are they? He said—he didn’t give the names, but he said these are — "Are these people who are managers or founders of WikiLeaks?" And he said, "Yes, they are." So we’re talking about an active investigation, most probable an indictment already. This is what Julian Assange was facing: never to see the light of day again, in my view, had he gone to Sweden. And so, he’s in not a great situation now, in the sense that, look at, he’s sitting in an embassy in London. He has to get political asylum. And then, how does he get out of the embassy?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But in response to some of these criticism, Swedish authorities have said that the European Court of Human Rights would intervene if Assange was to face the prospect of, quote, "inhuman or degrading treatment or an unfair trial" in the U.S.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well—well, first of all, wait a second, I’m not sure I understand that at all. The European Court of Human Rights only has jurisdiction over Europe. So, once he’s in the United States, there’s not much the European Court of Human Rights can do. In addition, the European Court of Human Rights recently came down with a major decision concerning four English Muslim men, and what they said was so negative and so outrageous, in my view, and such a denial of rights, that I would not depend on the European Court of Human Rights. They basically disregarded the fact that people spend years in solitary in the United States, that they get life sentences, that they have no way—that they have—they’re in communications managements units where they can’t speak to each other. And despite all of that evidence in the European Court of Human Rights, they just approved the extradition of four young—of four people from the United Kingdom. So I would not put anything on the European Court of Human Rights as positive for this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Julian Assange in November, after he lost his initial appeal.

JULIAN ASSANGE: I have not been charged with any crime in any country. Despite this, the European arrest warrant is so restrictive that it prevents U.K. courts from considering the facts of a case, as judges have made clear here today. We will be considering our next step in the days ahead. The full judgment will be available on swedenversusassange.com. No doubt there will been many attempts made to try and spin these proceedings as they occur today, but they are merely technical. So please go to swedenversusassange.com if you want to know what’s really going on in this case. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Julian Assange last November. Michael Ratner, your response?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, he was talking about the restrictions on the arrest warrant and the case that actually he lost in Britain. His argument in Britain was that the Swedish prosecutor had asked for his extradition, and under the European arrest warrant, it needs to be a judge. A prosecutor has a bias, because the prosecutor wants to prosecute. And that had never really been considered by the British courts. It went all the way up to the highest court in Britain, which was a surprise, to begin with. And in the end, the highest court in Britain came down five-to-two against Julian Assange. But I think most people think—many of us think that was a political decision. What they didn’t want to do was invalidate another European country’s process for extraditing people under the European warrant. So he lost that case in what many people would say was a political—a political decision. And that’s when he was ordered to surrender and go to Sweden—not go, he’s picked up by the Swedish in Britain, he’s put on an airplane, he’s handcuffed, taken into Sweden, goes into a prison in Sweden. U.S. then, at some point, files their extradition warrant, and he, as I said, really never sees—never sees the light of day.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On his show, The World Tomorrow, Julian Assange asked Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president, about U.S. involvement in Latin America. Let’s just go to that clip.

JULIAN ASSANGE: What do Ecuadorian people think about the United States and its involvement in Latin America and in Ecuador?

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: [translated] Well, as Evo Morales says, the only country that can be sure never to have a coup d’état is the United States, because it hasn’t got a U.S. embassy. In any event, I’d like to say that one of the reasons that led to police discontent was the fact that we cut all the funding the U.S. embassy provided to the police. Before and even a year after we took office, we took a while to correct this. Before, there were whole police units, key units, fully funded by the U.S. embassy, whose officers in command were chosen by the U.S. ambassador and paid by the U.S. And so, we have increased considerably the police’s pay.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Ratner, your response?

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, first of all, you have to remember, President Correa got rid of the U.S. military base in Ecuador. The WikiLeaks cable talked about the corruption of the police within Ecuador. And what you see President Correa says, well, they were being paid by the U.S. embassy. And, of course, his great line is that the only reason there’s not a coup in the United States is there’s no U.S. embassy, essentially, to plan it. So you’re seeing—you’re seeing a good part of this world understand the importance of what Bradley Manning allegedly did and understanding the importance of the publication by WikiLeaks of the diplomatic cables. Obviously not just in Ecuador—the secret war in Yemen, in cases that my office has been concerned with about prosecution of Rumsfeld and others in Spain—we see the U.S. interference all over. And the positive part, a strong positive of WikiLeaks, is they exposed to the world not just the war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but incredible hypocrisy in our own State Department.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, any precedent for people staying in embassies for years?

MICHAEL RATNER: Not such great ones, in the sense that they’ve been there for a long time. I mean, the one that comes mostly to mind—of course, the Chinese guy, he only stayed in the U.S. embassy for a couple of weeks, Chen, because then you had the U.S.—every diplomat in the world say, "Well, let’s deal with the Chinese and get him out of the embassy and get him into the United States." We should only have that situation where the—where people are going to the Ecuadorian embassy and—or saying to the British, "Let’s get him out and get him to Ecuador." I would love that.

But the precedent that I think of, Amy, is Cardinal Mindszenty. Cardinal Mindszenty—most people are too young for the Cold War—he was a Catholic prelate in Poland, opposition to the Polish government, took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, spent 13 years in the embassy in Warsaw. So, there’s precedent for very long times in the embassy. I don’t—look at, I want to see Julian Assange—I want to see no prosecution in the United States. I want to see him be able to go answer questions in Sweden without having the threat of immediate extradition to the United States, to deal with that and then to walk this world as a free person, having really done an incredible service to the peoples of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Ratner, I want to thank you for being with us, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

This is Democracy Now! We’re going to Rio+20. We’re going to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to talk about the largest U.N. summit on climate change ever. Stay with us.

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