The Fifth Estate, the new film about Julian “WikiLeaks” Assange, was a reminder that the Australian who gained notoriety for disseminating secret US State Department e-mails has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London for 16 months. A long time, but not a record.
Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for alleged sex crimes. He has been there ever since. The Ecuadorians have created a mini suite inside the building, installing shower and kitchen facilities, while British police wait outside 24/7 in case he should decide to make a dash for it. The armed police guard outside is reported to cost £12,000 a day.
Ecuador has granted its guest formal asylum, but the WikiLeaks founder can't get as far as Harrods, let alone to South America, because the moment he leaves the embassy, he will be arrested – even if he comes out in a diplomatic bag or handcuffed to the ambassador – and extradited to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.
British foreign secretary, William Hague, and his Ecuadorean opposite number, Ricardo Patiño, met last June to discuss the on-going diplomatic stalemate, but were unable to reach agreement. Assange subsequently said he would not leave the embassy even if Sweden drops its extradition bid, because he fears moves are already underway by the US to prosecute him on espionage charges.
The record-holder for the longest time spent in an embassy to escape arrest, however, was Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, the Catholic primate of Hungary, who remained holed up in the US Embassy in Budapest for 15 years. The prelate sought refuge in the American mission on November 4, 1956, just as the Hungarian Revolution was collapsing and he faced the prospect of being jailed by the Soviet authorities as its spiritual leader.
To the Americans, he was ironically “our visitor” who occupied the ambassador’s office and adjoining secretary’s office as his living quarters (the ambassador’s post was not filled during those years). Every Sunday, the embassy ensured that some staffers attended the cardinal’s Mass, at which he delivered a lengthy sermon in Hungarian.
Otherwise the cardinal didn’t socialize with the staff and was allowed no contact with other Hungarians, except for occasional visits from an elderly woman who brought him local delicacies; for years, it was thought that she was his former housemaid, but she turned out to be his mother.
Throughout that time, in what is now Freedom Square, Hungarian police sat in a car, always with the engine running.
The cardinal entered the embassy a symbol of one country’s heroic attempt to free itself from Soviet control, but after a decade he became an encumbrance for the United States, the Vatican, and even the Hungarian regime. The world was changing, but Mindszenty hadn’t changed with it, remaining the same hard-line anti-Communist of the 1950s.
The State Department never actually asked him to leave, but eventually negotiated a deal for his safe conduct from the regime, as a first step to improving bilateral relations. The Vatican, as part of its own Ostpolitik to improve conditions for Catholics living in Iron Curtain countries, sent Franz Cardinal König of Vienna to persuade Mindszenty to pack his bags and go to Rome. But the cardinal refused all offers to leave the embassy until the regime formally dropped its charges of treason against him, and allowed him to remain in Hungary. The regime responded by demanding that he renounce the title of primate and his claim to be de-facto head of state.
In the end Pope Paul VI personally summoned Mindszenty to the Vatican, and the cardinal obeyed the summons, leaving Budapest on September 28, 1971.
Being trapped in the embassy has done little to slow Assange down. He has continued running WikiLeaks and this year has published many more documents, including intelligence records from the 1970s and millions of emails related to Syria. He also continues to broadcast his opinion on current events, such as the NSA scandal and the WikiLeaks Party in Australia via video link.
Leaving the embassy would likely result in diplomatic and criminal repercussions. If Assange arrives in Ecuador, the first thing the British would probably do is remove their ambassador from Ecuador.
With no breakthrough in the diplomatic stalemate, Assange faces the choice between remaining safely in the embassy and an escape in private plane to Ecuador, which would likely be followed by political chaos putting his ability to manage WikiLeaks in jeopardy. Standing up for freedom may seem less important to Assange than saving himself right now.
Seeking asylum in an embassy has long been accepted diplomatic practice, inherited from the time when churches offered sanctuary. But another, more successful, movie, Argo, was a reminder that in modern times taking refuge in an embassy (in this case the Canadian ambassador’s residence) doesn’t always offer the same protection.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP-Julian Assange-Photo