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Friday, 17 August 2012

Assange's Mexican stand-off has its gothic notes

The Embassy of Ecuador in London is in this building.
The ABC's Leigh Sales apparently said on her evening report last night that Julian Assange was wanted in Sweden on "rape charges", which just goes to show that if you throw enough mud some of it will stick. People who have followed the Assange debacle closely will know that no charges have been laid and that the WikiLeaks founder is merely wanted by Swedish authorities to answer questions. Such people might also know that the nature of the Swedish case against Assange is lamentably tainted by political partisanship; most of those involved in the case are active Social Democrats, which is the party that originally brought in Sweden's harsh rape laws. On top of this Assange has volunteered himself for questioning via videolink from London on a number of occasions; Sweden says "No, you must be in camera".

Suspicious minds might say that Sweden wants to use Assange as a trophy case to promote awareness of its new laws at home. Beyond that, however, there are strong indications that the US wants to extradite Assange to its territory in order to prosecute him for espionage; a secret grand jury has undoubtedly been convened in Virginia, a notoriously pro-defence state that would supply a reliably compliant jury to convict Assange if he were brought to trial there. It is hard to blame Assange for resorting, in mid June, to requesting sanctuary at the Embassy of Ecuador in London. He has been there ever since. Yesterday, the government of Ecuador said that it will grant political asylum to Assange. Immediately, the British authorities said that they would not grant safe passage to Assange so that he can leave the country.

It's a Mexican stand-off with added gothic elements, not least of which is the grotesque architecture of the Ecuadorian Embassy itself, a garish pile of red brick and white detail with turrets and special architectural features that belong to an earlier era than ours. It was probably built in the late 19th Century, a time when the gothic mode experienced a revival in Europe to match a vibrant historical consciousness that went along with the continent's economic prosperity, and a privileged sense of destiny. That's a sense of self-worth that is more readily attributed, now, to the United States.

Which is a serious opponent to have, and Assange's personal standing within the global community is taking severe hits, with one writer recently saying that he was the weak link in the WikiLeaks organisation. Which is a bit odd considering that Julian Assange set up WikiLeaks in the first place and is the organisation's only public face. You can't win, it seems. Perhaps the tension is just getting to be too much for global punditry; there have been a few imaginative souls who have envisioned a Jason Bourne-like escape from the gothic embassy, with Assange, guns blazing, taking out police officers guarding the building's exits. Supporters have rallied to the cause with fresh vigour, however, and one man even stationed himself outside the embassy throughout the night holding a video camera to provide a live feed to a global audience.

What remains certain is that all the drama has had a negative impact on the WikiLeaks organisation, which has been notably silent of late. Few new releases of documents have emerged. This situation must be of concern to WikiLeaks personnel, since WikiLeaks guarantees its contributors timely release of documents. So WikiLeaks' enemies are anyway achieving at least part of their goal by default; if you create enough disturbance you will shut down the machine.

Less certain is what the end result of Assange's successful asylum application will be. Watch now for aggressive demonstrations of intent from both British and Ecuadorian authorities, who will be exchanging public comments over the following weeks. If not longer. For the moment, Assange is once more a kind of sideshow feature in the global media, caught in an uncompromising web of clashing forces. It's important not to forget the reason why he is so notable. Freedom of information can be radical in nature. We all benefit when information is allowed to circulate freely.

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