Assange Asylum Underscores Tensions in U.S. & Ecuador

     (CN) – With Ecuador offering asylum to Julian Assange, a nonprofit that ranks press freedom around the globe condemned the United States for putting pressure on the sought-after WikiLeaks founder.
     Assange has spent the last two months holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, which is monitored by British authorities waiting to haul the 41-year-old to Sweden where he faces questioning for allegations of sexual misconduct.
     But more serious charges could await Assange if Sweden turns him over to the United States where he fears he could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
     Assange offered to cooperate with the interview in exchange for a promise that Sweden will not turn him over, but Sweden reportedly shot that deal down.
     As Ecuador unfolded its welcome mat for Assange, Reporters Without Borders questioned what Sweden hopes to gain by questioning the WikiLeaks founder over the controversial allegations.
     “We have always thought that Assange’s extradition to Sweden could not be legitimate without the strict condition that it would not ultimately lead to extradition to the United States as part of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of WikiLeaks,” Reporters Without Borders director-general Christophe Deloire said in a statement.
     Both the United States and Ecuador took a slide in the group’s 2012 Press Freedom Index, with the U.S. plummeting more than two times below its last position to 47th place and the Latin American nation continuing its steady descent to 104th.
     In its statement, the group condemned U.S. efforts to “track down WikiLeaks activists and supporters.”
     It said there is an “obvious news interest” in the documents that WikiLeaks releases, which chronicle “serious human rights violations” in the name of anti-terrorism.
     Though Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has a reputation for clamping down on the press at home, he positions himself as a defender of WikiLeaks’ right to publish.
     Reporters Without Borders did not touch upon the apparent contradiction in its statement, a decision the group notes was made deliberately.
     Delphine Halgand, D.C.-area director for the group, told Courthouse News that the organization wanted to take “note” of Correa’s decision without lending it support or condemnation.
     “First, we are afraid of [Assange’s] extradition to the U.S.,” Halgand said. “Second, we ‘take note’ because we have a lot of concern with the situation in Ecuador. It’s a very complicated thing, right now.”
     She added that the organization is concerned that Assange could meet the same fate as Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier believed to be the source of the most notable WikiLeaks releases.
     Particularly, she cited concerns with Manning’s “treatment,” referring to his “isolation” for nine months at a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va. She also pointed out that the Obama administration has presided over an unprecedented number of prosecutions of those who disclose classified information.
     Although it once criticized WikiLeaks’ decision to release incident reports in the Afghanistan War without redacting U.S. sources, the Paris-based organization has consistently defended its right to publish under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
     At the same time, Halgand noted, “Ecuador is not a paradise for journalists.”
     Reporters Without Borders condemned an Ecuadorean court for jailing three journalists from El Universo and fining them $2 million.
     Though Correa pardoned them after the fact, the prosecution belied Correa’s claim as a free-speech defender, Halgand argued.
     “Knowing that, it’s hard to believe that he’s welcoming Assange because he is a defender of the freedom of the right to publish,” she said. “If Correa wants to pretend that he’s a defender of press freedom, he can begin by decriminalizing media offense in Ecuador.”
     Meanwhile, Assange’s lawyers say that the asylum decision bodes well for the press globally.
     “Ecuador’s action rightly offers protection to a journalist and publisher who faces persecution from the U.S.,” Vincent Warren said in a statement for the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose attorneys represent WikiLeaks. “It thereby strengthens the global commitment to human rights, including government accountability and freedom of the press. We hope that Assange’s contributions to a robust democratic society are belatedly recognized by the U.S., which prides itself in its commitment to a free press.”
     Warren added that the United Kingdom, ranked 28th and dropping in terms of press freedom, should grant Assange passage.
     “We are deeply troubled by the reported U.K. threats to storm the Ecuadoran Embassy and arrest Assange, in clear violation of the Vienna Convention’s protection of the inviolability of sovereign embassy properties, and by the menacing police presence outside the embassy,” Warren said in a statement.

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