Britain’s threats against Quito for granting asylum to Julian Assange and Stockholm’s refusal to guarantee he will not eventually be rendered to the United States have overshadowed the debate over the WikiLeaks founder’s decision to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London as a means of avoiding extradition to Sweden. Mr. Assange contends the British order for him to be questioned in Sweden over allegations of rape and sexual molestation is a political move to facilitate his extradition to the U.S. over WikiLeaks’s publication in 2010 of some 251,000 U.S. official documents. That act of leaking — many of the documents were also published in The Hindu as part of this newspaper’s partnership with WikiLeaks — made a significant contribution to public interest in India and other countries and greatly embarrassed Washington and its allies, as well as business corporations. At first sight, Mr. Assange’s fears seem misplaced. As signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, neither Britain nor Sweden can extradite a suspect to a country where he could face the death penalty or “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” something Bradley Manning is already undergoing in the U.S. for his alleged involvement in the leaks.
Nevertheless, there are grounds to believe there is more to this case than meets the eye. The Swedish government can override court extradition orders (though not court refusals of such), but it refuses to respond to Ecuador’s request for assurances that it will not extradite Mr. Assange to the U.S. Secondly, in Sweden, charges are not laid until just before prosecution, but Stockholm, in contrast to its own previous practice, has rejected Ecuador’s invitation to question Mr. Assange at the London embassy. Thirdly, U.K. foreign minister William Hague hinted darkly and unwisely about revoking the embassy’s diplomatic status, though London has since assured Quito it has no intention of breaching the inviolability of the premises. It has also emerged that a British counterterrorism unit has been covertly involved in policing the embassy perimeter and in plans for arresting Mr. Assange if he leaves the premises. The onus is on Britain as host nation to find a diplomatic way out. The criminal case against Mr. Assange must be heard and the women who allege they suffered at his hands are entitled to a thorough investigation of their charges. A simple solution is already at hand. As Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa told the Guardian, “if Mr Assange goes to Sweden to face Swedish justice, as is his will and as is our will, he should receive a guarantee that he will not be extradited to a third country.” These are wise words. It costs nothing for London and Stockholm to act on them.