Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

How five democracies conspired to entrap Julian Assange

  • The roles played by Australia, Sweden and Britain under pressure from America to persecute the founder of WikiLeaks is well-known. However, Ecuador and its domestic politics in the past decade may be even more relevant, but little understood

Throughout the second half of 2019, riots and protests gripped the city, leading to increasingly intense and violent confrontations with police. Many businesses throughout the city were hurt. Myriad social, political and economic problems long simmering under the surface burst forth, all causing intense dissatisfaction with the government, even hatred against it. At times, the city was paralysed.

Oh, you thought I was talking about Hong Kong? Actually no; the following would have given the game away. At least six protesters were killed and hundreds injured, according to official estimates. A state of emergency, or what the government of Ecuador called “a state of exception”, was eventually declared in the capital, Quito, allowing the military to exercise total control and discretion. Lenin Moreno, who was president at the time, fled the city.

Back in Hong Kong, no rioter or protester was killed. No state of emergency or martial law was ever declared. No People’s Liberation Army personnel were ever involved, except in cleaning up debris after a particularly nasty typhoon.

But Western media and governments, especially US media and Washington, went into a hysterical feeding frenzy over Hong Kong that continues to this day. Meanwhile, Washington was practically silent about the troubles in Ecuador, which became friendly with the United States once again after a period of hostility under Moreno’s predecessor and former mentor, the leftist Rafael Vicente Correa, most famous to many foreigners for providing sanctuary to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in London and granting him citizenship.

Just imagine if Julian Assange was Chinese

In the case of Assange and how Washington managed to trap the world’s greatest citizen-journalist by bending not one, not two but four supposedly democratic governments to its will, the domestic politics of Ecuador in the past decade is perhaps the least understood but also the most relevant.

In our part of the world, it’s well-known how the Australian government (both Labor and Liberal), beginning with former prime minister Julia Gillard and then with Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, has washed its hands of the country’s world-famous citizen; and how the media empire controlled by Rupert Murdoch has routinely conducted minimal reporting, if at all, instead of expressing its brand of speciality outrage.

The kangaroo courts of London went into action as soon as the Ecuadorean embassy released Assange into the custody of British police in 2019. And, throughout the past decade, the prosecutorial office of Sweden kept resurrecting sexual assault charges and extradition requests against Assange, whose lawyers had warned once he was sent to Sweden, US authorities would immediately request extradition on sealed or undisclosed charges. Sure enough, once he was handed to British authorities, US prosecutors immediately unsealed the espionage charges based on a set of obscure and rarely used American laws dating back to the first world war with a maximum jail term of 175 years. Swedish prosecutors immediately “reopened” and then dropped the case once and for all. Interestingly, the alleged key victim in the case had declared, for a long time, that she had no interest in pursuing rape charges against Assange.

But the cooperation, both tacit and active, of Australia, Britain and Sweden would have been for nothing without a change of government in Ecuador. Correa was part of a group of leftist leaders in South America led by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who proved to be a thorn in the side of Washington and its allied oligarchic business elites in the region.

Troops deployed as protesters turn Ecuador’s capital into war zone

When Moreno took over the presidency in 2017, he dismantled many popular measures of his predecessor by launching a neoliberal economic reform.

He lowered taxes, especially for big companies and to attract foreign investors; granted amnesty to some people previously convicted on financial fraud; relaxed labour protection laws, liberalised trade policy, reduced public spending and ended fuel subsidies. He supported oil drilling in the Amazon and allowed the US military to access an airbase on the environmentally sensitive Galapagos Islands, most famous for a historic visit by Charles Darwin that led to his formulation of the theory of evolution.

In other words, he imposed International Monetary Fund-like austerity measures or “conditionalities”, usually hated by the recipient countries, even before the IMF and World Bank were invited to step in with more than US$10 billion in loans. That must have been easy negotiations.

His government did restore some public subsidies, which helped end the protests in October 2019.

Julian Assange speaks to reporters on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in May 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE

Moreno was close to the Americans. As the incoming president, Moreno secretly met Donald Trump’s election campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in May 2017 to discuss evicting Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London. That disclosure came from an investigation by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller looking into links between the Russian government and Trump’s presidential election campaign.

The then US vice-president, Mike Pence, also met Moreno the following year during which they discussed the Assange case and the need to improve bilateral relations.

Thereafter, the Moreno government started complaining publicly about how bad Assange had been as a guest of the embassy, such as disturbing and abusing staff, hacking computers and even having poor personal hygiene. All that was duly swallowed by some mainstream Anglo-American media outlets. Having made the case against him, Assange was duly stripped of his Ecuadorean citizenship and handed over to British police.

Washington, predictably, ignored Moreno’s troubles at home and the popular protests against his regime, while going into overdrive over Hong Kong’s riots, portraying them as a peaceful fight for freedom and democracy.

Assange probably knew his time was up as soon as Moreno was elected president. He was the proverbial sitting duck, or bird in a cage.