Assange’s Special Asylum: Why Ecuador Isn’t Nice to Anyone Else

The government of Rafael Correa extends its hospitality to the WikiLeaks founder but is accused of harassing unfriendly journalists and may extradite a whistle-blower from Belarus to face grave charges in the country described as "Europe's last dictatorship"

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San Tan / AP

British police officers arrest a protester in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in front of the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Aug. 16, 2012

Like WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Alexander Barankov has worked to expose government misconduct via the Internet. Both men have received refuge on Ecuadorian territory. But while the South American country made world headlines granting Assange diplomatic asylum on Thursday morning, Barankov faces imminent extradition from Ecuador to its new ally Belarus, described by most observers as “Europe’s last dictatorship.”

At an hour after dawn on Thursday, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño told a packed auditorium that, as expected, his government had decided to provide asylum to Assange. “We believe that there are indications that allow us to presume a risk of political persecution, or that this persecution could occur if opportune and necessary measures aren’t taken to avoid them,” Patiño said. Ecuador says it shares Assange’s fear that extradition to Sweden could lead to his subsequent rendition to the U.S., where he says he could be tried for espionage and sentenced to death. The U.S. has refused to provide information to Ecuador on whether Assange would face trial on American soil and Sweden gave no assurance that it would not send Assange in that direction. Patiño did not explain how Assange could safely leave Ecuador’s embassy in London, where the Australian has been in residence since mid-June in order to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning for alleged sexual abuse. In Stockholm, the Swedish Foreign Ministry called in Ecuador’s ambassador to “tell [him] that it’s unacceptable that Ecuador is trying to stop the Swedish judicial process,” said Anders Jorle, the ministry’s spokesman.

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The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has maintained that it plans to follow through with extraditing Assange. While the FCO has released a statement stating that they “remain committed to a negotiated solution,” it also asserted that the U.K. was “disappointed” with the political asylum offered to Assange. “Under our law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation.”

It’s the U.K.’s plan to uphold that obligation that poses the biggest problem for Assange. While he’s still tucked away in the Ecuadorian embassy for now, leaving the protected premises won’t be easy, according to Rebecca Niblock, a U.K. extradition lawyer with London-based firm Kingsley Napley. “As soon as he steps foot out of the embassy, they are going to arrest him and they are entitled to use reasonable force to arrest him. So right now he can’t leave the embassy.”

Niblock also points out that the U.K. has suggested that the embassy’s protected status could be at stake. The FCO has cited the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, which, if called on, could allow the U.K. to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status. “There are some impediments to using it,” she adds, “which are that the Foreign Secretary has to be satisfied that what they are doing is permissible in international law, and the Vienna Convention is quite strongly worded. It says that the premises of the embassy are inviolable and it goes further than that and says that the receiving state — the U.K. — is under a duty to protect the premises from damage or intrusion. It’s hard to see how that could be reconciled with going into the embassy to arrest him.”

Niblock warns that such a strategy would be diplomatically dicey for the U.K. “It would set such a dangerous precedent to enter the embassy. You know, the U.K. obviously has diplomats all over the world and if one country starts saying, ‘Oh, that’s an exception,’ then [it could set a precedent]. You know, the Chinese didn’t go in to arrest Chen Guangcheng from the American embassy. For the U.K. to do that would be very difficult practically and legally.”

The stage remains set for a long standoff like that of Peruvian politician Raúl Haya de la Torre, granted asylum by Colombia but not permitted to leave by Peru for five years from October 1948. The Colombian embassy in Lima however is a palace with considerable gardens, unlike the midsize apartment in London’s Knightsbridge neighborhood where Assange has only a room with a bed, desk, and one window to the outside. His lawyer Baltasar Garzón — who became famous when he asked the U.K. to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain in 1998 — has said that Assange is willing to stay on until the situation is resolved, possibly by way of a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. The ICJ ruled in 1950 that Colombia could grant asylum to Haya de la Torre, but also that Peru had no obligation to allow him safe passage to Bogotá.

(PHOTOS: Inside WikiLeaks’ Bunker)

European diplomats in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, said the Latin American practice of asylum differs vastly from that in Europe. British Foreign Minister William Hague said the U.K. doesn’t recognize diplomatic asylum at all. Garzón says that the U.K. has no reason not to allow Assange to leave for Ecuador given that the WikiLeaks founder is willing to meet Swedish prosecutors anywhere except Sweden. Stockholm, however, refused the Ecuadorian offer to question him at the embassy.

Unless he decides to leave the embassy, whereupon he faces immediate arrest, Assange can now expect to remain there at least through Ecuador’s presidential election scheduled for Feb. 20, 2013, although that date has been put into question this month by a massive scandal over fraudulent registration of political parties. President Rafael Correa’s leftist administration has been using the controversy to tweak the U.S. and the West in order to bolster its own popular standing in Ecuador.

Protecting Assange allows Quito to deflect some of the scathing international and domestic criticism of the government’s campaign against private media. “Julian Assange is a media professional internationally decorated for his fight in favor of freedom of expression,” Patiño said. Organizations critical of the Correa government, including Reporters Without Borders and the indigenous confederation CONAIE applauded the decision — to a certain extent. “At the same time,” said CONAIE head Humberto Cholango, “we denounce the immense contradiction and double standard with which President Rafael Correa acts, who inside the country insults, pursues and prosecutes indigenous leaders and social activists as terrorists.”

Indeed, the hospitality that Ecuador extends to Assange is withheld from Ecuadorians who may try to emulate his online whistle-blowing tactics. Since Assange entered the embassy, Ecuador’s government has scrapped the need for a warrant to investigate private Internet Protocol addresses. Additionally, for the second time in 18 months, on July 31 government officials and police seized the computers of the newsmagazine Vanguardia, which has been critical of the Correa Administration. The charge: that the publication had violated labor laws. As a result, Vanguardia only managed to go to print this week with the help of donated computers.

The plight of Barankov poses a real test of Ecuador’s commitment to human rights. A former Belarusian army captain, Barankov arrived in Quito in 2008 thanks to the Ecuadorian government’s very liberal immigration laws. He then set up a blog denouncing corruption and other crimes allegedly committed under authoritarian ruler Alexander Lukashenko. Ecuador initially granted him refugee status, but after a state visit by Lukashenko to Quito on June 29, he was arrested and is being held in the capital’s infamous, 19th century prison while the top court hears the case on Belarus’ fresh extradition request. If sent there, according to his partner, Maribel Andrade, he will face charges of treason and could be put to death.

— With reporting by Megan Gibson / London

MORE: Why Is Ecuador Julian Assange’s Choice for Asylum?