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UK Blows Fuse In Assange Asylum Case

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The concerted and orchestrated campaign to capture Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and ultimately to hand him over to the tender mercies of a kangaroo court in the US, where he would likely be tried for spying and other possibly capital offenses, continues as Britain threatens the Ecuadoran Embassy with a police assault in a move that would effectively demolish diplomatic protections everywhere.

According to the newspaper the Australian, a News Corp. property and Australian flagship of media baron Rupert Murdoch, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino says he and the Ecuadoran ambassador received a written message yesterday from the British Foreign Office warning that Britain might send police to “assault” the country’s embassy and forcibly remove Assange so as to hand him over to Sweden to face questioning on several controversial sexual assault claims made by women there.

Although the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, passed in 1961 and signed by Britain, Sweden and the US, along with nearly every country in the world, clearly grants embassies the status of being considered the official territory of the country represented by the embassy, thus putting them beyond all laws of the host country, Britain is citing a 1987 UK law that states when a foreign nation ”ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post,” the Vienna Convention no longer applies, and the building is no longer beyond the reach of British police.

The text of the threatening UK letter, released by the Ecuadoran government, reads:

“You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy.

“We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange’s presence in your premises, this is an open option for us….

“…We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.”

A letter sent to the government of Ecuador by the British Embassy in Quito was even more explicit, saying:

“We must arrest Mr. Assange and extradite him to Sweden. Should you grant him asylum, and then request safe passage for him, we will refuse it. We consider Assange’s use of diplomatic premises to be incompatible with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and not sustainable. Under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987, we have a legal basis to arrest Mr. Assange inside your embassy. If you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange’s presence on your premises, then this route is open to us.”

Clearly this threat is ridiculous on its face, given that the Vienna Convention is unambiguous in stating that embassies are inviolate. As Article 22 of the Convention puts it:

1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.

2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.

3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

There’s not a lot of wiggle room left there for sending police barging into an embassy to grab someone. The British government’s assertion that somehow the Ecuador Embassy, by granting Assange asylum from deportation to Sweden and possibly to the US (which reportedly has a secret sealed indictment waiting for him), is “misusing” its embassy grounds and is thus not protected by the Vienna Convention, is both absurd and dangerous. The ability of embassies to grant people asylum without fear of invasion by forces from the host country has been recognized for centuries, with its roots going back to the Greeks and Egyptians, and even at the coldest period of the Cold War, it was honored by rival states like Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union.

If Assange, whose most serious “crime” at this point is skipping out on bail in Britain, can be rousted from asylum in a foreign embassy, what does that mean for those people charged with “crimes” in countries like China or Cuba who may in the future seek asylum from persecution or prosecution in a British or a US embassy? How would the late astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, an acknowledged intellectual mentor to many of the young activists in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, who after the brutal government crackdown holed up with his wife for months in the US Embassy in Beijing, have fared under such a warped interpretation of the Vienna Convention? How would Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident in China who escaped house arrest and fled to the US Embassy, have fared?

It’s significant that last year, the US government, including even President Obama at a press conference, tried to claim that Raymond Davis (whom they all knew was a contract agent and paid killer from the CIA), was immune from arrest and prosecution in Pakistan even after he had brazenly slaughtered two young men on motorcycles, shooting them both in the back and then executing them with point-blank shots to the head, all in a crowded street in broad daylight. Their argument: he worked either for the US Consulate in Lahore or the US Embassy in Karachi. And he was nabbed at the scene of the crime. He wasn’t even on protected consular grounds. (In the end, Pakistan let Davis escape the country, after the US paid death payments to Davis’s victims’ families in accordance with Sharia law.)

Actually, when it comes to use of an embassy or a consulate “in a way incompatible with the Vienna Convention,” the US and Britain, which post CIA agents or MI6 agents undercover as diplomats in most of their foreign embassies, and which have long used their so-called diplomatic “pouches” (which in the US case can often be entire shipping containers), immune from customs inspections, to transport weapons to favored terrorist groups inside countries like Chile or Iraq or Iran, are really guilty of using their embassies and consulates in ways that are “incompatible” with the Vienna Convention.

During the US occupation of Iraq, there were a number of solid reports about weapons being smuggled into the country via diplomatic pouch to both countries for use by Iraqi operatives working outside the law, and for smuggling onward to groups inside Iran. Just today, Iran’s PressTV reports that the US Consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra was found to have obtained, through diplomatic pouch, a shipment of light and heavy weapons intended for smuggling to terror groups operating inside of Iran. At one point during the occupation, several British agents operating out of the British Consulate in Basra, were caught by Iraqi police driving a car while dressed in local Arab garb. Found in the car were guns, RPGs, bombs and wiring. They were arrested, but were later rescued by British military forces who stormed the police station. No arrests were made by Iraqi police of any British consular personnel following this incident, because of the Vienna Convention.

Why would Britain risk destroying that same Vienna Convention, which has been around since 1961, and even longer in other legal iterations, over such a minor case as ducking out on bail, particularly as Assange has never even been charged with a crime in Sweden, where a British Court says he has to be deported on an Interpol warrant? (He’s wanted in Sweden at this point only for questioning, technically). After all, Britain is no longer a global power, and stands to lose a lot if its own embassies no longer can count on protection under the Vienna Convention.

The answer to that would seem to be that it is the US, which despite its denials seems to desperately want to get Assange and prosecute him for leaking secret cables, which is behind this farce. The New Straits Times of Singapore is reporting that the Australian Embassy in Washington is preparing for a possible extradition of Assange, an Australian national, to the US. The US, unlike Britain, is a global power to reckon with, and does not have to worry over much about its embassies being overrun (bombed maybe). But aside from the Iranian US Embassy occupation, which was not entirely government sanctioned, there has not been a US Embassy taken over by government action, and there is unlikely to be. The costs to the host country would simply be too great.

As Ecuador has told Britain, though, an assault on an embassy is technically an act of war, as embassies are viewed legally as the territory of the home country they represent.

Already, there are threats in other countries to invade and take over British embassies if Britain makes good on its threat and has police assault the Ecuador embassy. It’s a fair bet that in Latin America – where there is broad support for Ecuador’s principled stand and where asylum in embassies has a hallowed tradition and has saved many people during coups and dictatorships – British embassies would take a heavy beating if Assange is dragged out of Ecuador’s embassy. US embassies too could take a hit, since Latin Americans are acutely aware of America’s role in this affair, and have little love lost for America and its penchant for pushing its weight around. At Ecuador’s request, The Organization of American States (OAS), by a vote of 23 to 3 with the US, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago in opposition, voted to hold an emergency meeting in Washington on Aug. 24 to discuss the crisis.

Odds are that Britain is bluffing, although it has massed police and vans around the Ecuador Embassy building, which, unlike the fort-like US embassies around the world, sits unguarded and unwalled on a street in London. Though the question of how or when Assange will be able to escape the embassy and gain safe passage out of Britain and to Ecuador, and whether he could subsequently avoid being kidnapped there and “surrendered” to the US, remains unanswered. British supporters of Assange have been putting out calls on social media for people to mass around the embattled embassy to protect it against a police assault. Some have already been arrested doing so there.

What this astonishing incendiary reaction by the British Foreign Office to Assange’s grant of asylum by Ecuador makes abundantly clear is that Assange and his Wikileaks organization are truly feared by Britain and the US. His organization’s ability to expose the war crimes, the war criminals, and the international treachery of these two countries and their allies around the world is one of the biggest threats they face, and they are proving it by their desperate efforts to neutralize or eliminate him.

This article appeared at PressTV and is reprinted with permission.

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Dave Lindorff

Dave Lindorff

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective. Lindorff is a contributor to "Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion" (AK Press) and the author the author of “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press). He can be reached at [email protected]

2 thoughts on “UK Blows Fuse In Assange Asylum Case

  • Avatar
    August 19, 2012 at 1:49 pm
    Permalink

    Extradition without formal charges is something new.

    I am 73 years old and my first recollections of same included:

    1) Specific charges required to be previously laid
    2) Only those charges included in the process and for which extradition is sought are to be used against the person(s) handed over.
    3) Only Named offences are extraditable; normally these are criminal in BOTH entities.

    As this case violates (1) and (3) and leaves (2) in doubt where (if any) are the precedents?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 21, 2012 at 4:01 am
    Permalink

    Very well put, Mr David Tarbuck.

    Reply

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