Why Asylum Might Not Suit Julian Assange

The WikiLeaks founder and his supporters have long said his international notoriety has gotten him unfair treatment. Now that he’s been offered asylum in Ecuador, that fame has become his shield — but at what cost?

OLIVIA HARRIS / Reuters

A sign held by an Assange supporter outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

After Julian Assange was accused of sexual assault by two Swedish women, his lawyer claimed he was the victim of an international plot: “The honeytrap has been sprung,” he said. “Dark forces are at work.” In a interview earlier this year, Assange stopped short of accusing the CIA of orchestrating the entire assault case, but did say he’d been warned that the US government might use “extralegal means” to shut him down. He added that he was “fighting a superpower” — he apparently felt his opponents were not just two women and their lawyers, but an entire country and its allies, upset about the information he’d leaked.

Debate about the real reasons for Assange’s arrest quickly became one of the most unpleasant political arguments in recent memory. But it’s indisputably true that Assange’s case received vastly more media coverage than it would have been essential in some ordinary Australian vacationing in Sweden — he’s absolutely right that it was “instantly politicized.” He also appears to be right that this politicization hurt him — he probably wouldn’t have been treated as quite such a high-profile international fugitive were it not for WikiLeaks. But now, Assange’s status as guerrilla media star and thorn in the side of the US government has earned him asylum.

Assange has recently been evolving from political firebrand to good old-fashioned celebrity. He claimed that “hundreds” of women (and, oddly, a sea captain named “Captain Morgan”) had approached him as groupies and/or stalkers. And he got his own talk show, paid for by the Russian government. It was during an interview on that show in June that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa first offered Assange asylum. In a real way, Assange’s fame is paying off.

At this point, his case has started to look something like Roman Polanski’s. It’s distinctly possible that all the media coverage surrounding Polanski’s rape of a teenage girl in 1976 made the judge in that case treat him more harshly. But when he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009, he got an outpouring of support from powerful friends — French president Nicolas Sarkozy even reportedly helped broker a deal to keep him out of prison. Switzerland eventually refused to extradite him.

Of course, Julian Assange isn’t Roman Polanski. For one thing, he hasn’t confessed to anything — Polanski admits to raping Samantha Geimer. He also has a very different career. Polanski can continue making films, largely untainted by his associations with the powerful people who have helped him. But Assange has made his name as someone who stands up to authority and publicizes the misconduct of governments. Now that Russia is bankrolling his talk show, will WikiLeaks give that country a pass? (While they’ve released some cables concerning Russia this year, Assange also said in an April interview that WikiLeaks wasn’t very interested in Russia right now, since “our major confrontation is with the West.”) And now that Ecuador has offered him shelter, will Assange’s international embarrassment machine be kind to Correa’s government?

The question may be moot — right now, Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, since the British government won’t actually let him leave the country. And Ecuador’s foreign minister has said the Brits are threatening to storm the embassy and take Assange by force. Chances of him actually making it to Latin America look somewhat slim. For his reputation at least, that might be a good thing. If he returns to Sweden to face questioning, he’ll be a martyr to his followers, and to others, at least someone who abides the law. If he flees, he’ll forever be beholden to the governments who have helped him. And that might undermine his credibility as someone who exposes the misdeeds of the powerful — the very thing that made him famous in the first place.

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