This summer brought surprising new twists in the ongoing political chess match surrounding Wikileaks’ controversial founder and editor, Julian Assange. In mid-August, Assange was granted political asylum in Ecuador, but remained trapped in the embassy, setting off the newest and still-developing phase of the multinational political opera.
Wikileaks captured the attention of journalists, activists, and governments around the world when the anti-secrecy organization published millions of classified diplomatic cables and documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a series of releases throughout 2010.
Amid the political fallout from the leaked documents – some of which revealed startling duplicity by Pakistan and alarming apparent human rights violations by U.S. soldiers abroad – interest grew about the man behind Wikileaks.
Julian Assange came to take the spotlight. The Australian activist/journalist (and there’s been much debate as to which is more appropriate) had made few friends. When a tenuous relationship with The New York Times fell apart, Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller himself wrote an 8,000 word story in the Times Magazine in which he quotes a letter on Assange from another Times reporter: “He was alert but disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street [...] He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days.”
In the political sphere, the attacks against Assange were even greater. Joe Biden called him a “high-tech terrorist,” a word which was increasingly to be used in connection with Assange. Governor Mike Huckabee even called for Assange’s execution.
With few friends and allies, Assange bounced from nation to nation.
The climax came just weeks after Wikileaks’ largest document release. Swedish police began an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct with two separate women there. The women, who each stated that the sexual encounter at least started as consensual, issued a total of four complaints against Assange. When Sweden issued a warrant for the questioning of Assange (though not charging him for any crimes), he turned himself in to the police in Great Britain.
After being granted bail at $315,000, Assange was placed under house arrest at the home of a wealthy friend. There he remained while Britain began the lengthy and technical procedure to extradite Assange to Sweden.
Assange’s camp feared that, following his extradition to Sweden, he would subsequently be shuttled to the United States to face charges related to the leaks. If prosecuted under the Espionage Act, Assange could face the death penalty.
Assange offered to return to Sweden should the nation agree that he wouldn’t be sent to America. He also invited investigators to question him in custody in the UK. On both counts, Sweden declined.
At the end of June, Assange’s last appeal was denied. He faced extradition to Sweden on July 7.
Just two weeks before he was to have boarded a plane to Sweden, Assange broke bail and fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Embassies are often hotspots for international drama. They exist in a legal gray area: physically positioned inside another nation, they’re technically an extension of the parent country’s territory. For Britain to physically enter the Ecuadorian embassy would be akin to a foreign invasion. At the same time, Assange remains trapped inside the building, which remains surround day and night by British police as well as a healthy ring of protestors.
It’s unclear how the standoff will end. According to Ecuador’s foreign minister, British officials had threatened to storm the embassy to recapture Assange. The allegations drew sharp criticism from Assange’s supporters, who admonished Britain’s apparent willingness to violate politically and historically sacrosanct rights of diplomatic immunity. Unable to storm the castle, Britain is left holding siege with little to do but wait.
The story of Wikileaks has it all. Largely, it contributes to the conversation on America’s primary international effort of the last decade, the so-called “War on Terror”; documents leaked by Wikileaks revealed much about both the political and military aspects of that effort. Although there is a strong case to be made that the allegations against Assange in Sweden have been manipulated largely for political purposes, Sweden’s strict sexual assault laws contrast with our nation’s own recent struggles to define and understand rape. Ecuador’s willingness to grant Assange safe asylum reflects the South American nations’ growing polarization against the U.S. / Canada.
This is the political whirlpool in which Assange finds himself. Whether this political prisoner by proxy is able to sink and swim will be an important indicator of power and political pull in a drama worth following.