Latin leaders unite in support of Assange asylum, amidst mixed global reactions


Assange at the SKUP conference for investigative journalism, Norway, March 2010 (Image by Flickr user Espen Moe (cc: sa-by))

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up inside Ecuador’s embassy in London.

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He’s been quiet since making a public statement Sunday, calling for an end to what he called “the U.S. witch hunt” against his anti-secrecy organization. In the same speech, he called for the release of Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who is accused of leaking sensitive military information to WikiLeaks and is scheduled to go on trial in September.

“If Bradley Manning did as he is accused, he is a hero, and an example to all of us. And one of the world’s foremost political prisoners. Bradley Manning must be released,” Assange said.

He made no mention of the sexual assault investigation underway in Sweden. His extradition is based on that allegation — and not the Wikileaks matter.

Ecuador’s decision to grant Assange asylum has prompted frank and strong reactions — both by those who agree with the country's decision and those who are backing the United Kingdom.

In response to Assange’s speech, the Obama Administration said Assange is making “wild assertions” to divert attention from the sexual assault allegations. The State Department said Assange's case has nothing to do with the United States or Wikileaks, but the allegations he faces in Sweden.

In Sweden, Ecuador’s decision to grant Assange asylum has largely been seen as a perversion of justice. According to Reuters, Assange’s speech angered many in Sweden who think theories of a U.S. conspiracy have taken away from the serious allegations.

But several Latin American nations have expressed their support for Ecuador's decision.

A meeting of foreign ministers at the Union of South American Nations backed the Ecuadorean government and condemned Britain for threatening to forcibly remove Assange from the embassy.

Natalia Viana, director of Publica, a Brazilian non-profit investigative journalism center, said diplomatic asylum has a played a key role in Latin American history and is a “sacred institution” there.

“It has saved dozens of opposition leaders during our very, very bloody dictatorships,” Viana said. “None of the leaders have said we support Assange, or we support what he’s doing. They are saying we support Ecuador because Ecuador is an independent state and that should be respected."

Viana was a member of a team assembled by Wikileaks in the weeks before the 2010 release of classified U.S. diplomatic cables. She said Latin America supports Ecuador's decision because Ecuador has the right to grant Assange asylum.

“The motivation is more about preserving this institution and preserving what is considered as Ecuadorean soil in the U.K.," she said.

John Maisto served as a U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua and Venezuela. He said Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange and the support the country has received from Latin America is largely political theater, meant to make a point to Washington.

“I think part and parcel of this, with regard to the Latin American countries, comes with the opportunity to take a swipe at the United States, which the president of Ecuador certainly has done,” he said.

He said the U.K.'s handling of the situation has been within the realm of international law and practice and also said that the Wikileaks documents revealed that Latin American governments often say one thing privately and another thing publicly, but the U.S. has been very clear in its intentions.

"The United States, I think, carries out much of its diplomacy within the realm of international law, but there is such a thing as a sovereignty. The U.K. is sovereign, Sweden is sovereign, and the United States is sovereign. And sovereign countries look after their own interests," he said.

But Viana disagreed that Latin American countries have been unclear in their motivations.

“The countries are standing against the U.K. threat to storm the embassy," she said.  "We are also in a very specific moment in which Latin America is showing a unity in that we’re together and we’re standing together.”