A 3am-standoff between British police and officials at the Ecuador embassy in Knightsbridge, London notwithstanding, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Patiño underscored his government’s firm view on the case of Julian Assange when he announced on Thursday, “The government of Ecuador, true to its tradition of protecting those who seek refuge in its territory or on the premises of diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to citizen Assange.”
The Minister’s remarks came in the face of an unprecedented – some would say brazen – raid by the police to allegedly arrest Mr. Assange from the embassy, where he sought refuge on June 19, and extradite him to Sweden was said to be planned. Mr. Assange is not only formally sought by authorities in Sweden in a pending case against him, but along with his organisation he is held responsible for publishing thousands of confidential cables of the U.S. State Department.
One unanswered question on most observers’ minds at this time was why Ecuador has decided to grant political asylum to Mr. Assange especially when doing so would risk jeopardising its ties with nations that it considers important allies and trading partners, including the U.S., the U.K.,Sweden and Australia.
A host of possible justifications for the Ecuadorian action have been suggested, including notions that the country’s President, Rafael Correa, may be seeking to show himself a champion of free speech, or to embarrass the US, or to thrust himself onto the global stage as a fearless leader.
However as Mark Weisbrot of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research has argued, Mr.Correa “didn’t want this mess and it has been a lose-lose situation for him from the beginning,” given the escalation in tensions that he has suffered the US, UK and Sweden since Mr. Assange sought asylum at the embassy on June 19.
Mr. Weisbrot and others have pointed out that the U.S. is Ecuador's largest trading partner and has several times threatened to cut off trade preferences that support thousands of Ecuadorian jobs.
However what Ecuador’s own explanatory note on the decision to grant Mr. Assange asylum suggests is that Mr. Correa’s government made the decision based on a careful consideration of the facts in the case, including shortcomings in the procedures followed by the
prosecution regarding sexual assault charges that he faces in Sweden, and the balance of ethical considerations.
Of particular salience to Ecuador’s support for Mr. Assange is the fact that Mr. Assange’s legal team have on several occasions offered to provide Swedish authorities with access to Mr.Assange on the premises of Ecuador’s London embassy, in order for them to interrogate him and take formal statements for the case.
“This measure is perfect and legally possible. Sweden did not accept,” Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry noted, adding that the U.S. had similarly refused to clarify its position on the Assange case, “saying it is a bilateral matter between Ecuador and the United Kingdom.
Thus the facts that ultimately tilted Ecuador toward granting asylum to Mr. Assange included the consideration that “there is strong evidence of retaliation by the country or countries that produced the information disclosed by Mr. Assange, retaliation that may endanger their safety,integrity, and even his life.”