February 24, 2022
The UK High Court ruling that Julian Assange should be extradited to face trial in the United States — a decision that Amnesty International has called a “travesty of justice” — came as no surprise to me. It’s what the UK government always wanted. I know because the British deputy minister of foreign affairs told me.
Many pundits and politicians talk of the extradition proceedings against Assange as if they were an unforeseen legal outcome that came about as Assange’s situation unfolded. This is not true. My experience as the foreign minister of Ecuador — the South American country that granted Assange asylum — left me in no doubt that the UK wanted Assange’s extradition to the United States from the very beginning.
One encounter I had with Alan Duncan, the former British minister of state for Europe and the Americas, in October 2016, really let the cat out of the bag. At our meeting in the Dominican Republic, Duncan went on extensively about how loathsome Assange was. While I didn’t anticipate Duncan to profess his love for our asylee, I had expected a more professional diplomatic exchange. But the most important moment of the meeting was when I reiterated that Ecuador’s primary fear was the transfer of Assange to the United States, at which point Duncan turned to his staff and exclaimed something very close to “Yes, well, good idea. How would we go about extraditing him to the Americans?”
His advisors squirmed in embarrassment. They had spent the last four years trying to reassure Ecuador that this was not what the UK was after. I responded that this was news indeed. I then wondered whether Duncan left the meeting feeling he had made a mess of it.
I was particularly surprised by Duncan’s candor because my June 2016 meeting with his predecessor, Hugo Swire, in Whitehall, had been quite different. It’s not that Swire wasn’t equally contemptuous of the irritating South American country that had granted Assange asylum. It is more that Swire actually knew the case well.
Swire stuck to the UK’s position: nobody wanted to extradite Assange to the United States. The Ecuadorian government was “deluded” and “paranoid.” This had nothing to do with the issue of freedom of expression or even WikiLeaks. The case was all about accusations in Sweden against Assange. Ecuador should stop protecting a potential sex offender.
Events since have demonstrated that the British argument that Assange was “holed up” in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid facing sexual assault allegations in Sweden was deceitful. The case was always about Assange’s publishing activities as the head of WikiLeaks. In fact, my government had made it clear to both its British and Swedish counterparts that if Ecuador received guarantees of non-extradition from Sweden to the United States, Ecuador would have no problem with Assange traveling to Sweden to face questioning. Assange himself agreed to this. But Sweden refused to offer such guarantees, which obviously further heightened Ecuador’s suspicions that Assange was being persecuted.
Had Swire been telling the truth, the Swedish prosecutor’s decision not to press charges against Assange in May 2017 would have enabled Assange to walk free from the embassy. The remaining claim that he breached his bail by successfully applying for political asylum should have been easily resolved after the European arrest warrant was dropped. But the UK refused to let Assange slip away and he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy for two more years before a new Ecuadorian government, heavily leaned on by the Trump administration, consented to having him brutally removed in April 2019.
Maybe it was simply that Duncan’s hatred for Assange, whom he referred to as a “miserable little worm” in Parliament in March 2018, was too pure to be tempered in our meeting. Duncan’s published diaries certainly attest to the fact that Assange’s arrest became an overriding obsession and eventually a personal trophy. When the time came, Duncan watched Assange’s extraction from the embassy — which he refers to as Operation Pelican — on a live feed, and later held “drinks in my office for all the Operation Pelican team.”
Duncan’s deeply felt disdain for what he called “the supposed human rights of Julian Assange” is probably part and parcel of his fervent allegiance to the Anglo-American security partnership. Duncan served on the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee in 2015–2016. He is also a member of the secretive, transatlantic organization “Le Cercle,” an ultraconservative think tank with strong links to the intelligence community in Europe and the United States.
We can only speculate whether Duncan’s close relationship with whom he calls his “good friend and Oxford contemporary Ian Burnett,” the Lord Chief Justice who gave the green light to Assange’s extradition, interfered with the judicial process. But the extradition proceedings have been problematic from the beginning. All of the largest US human rights and press freedom organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and others, have urged the DOJ “to dismiss the indictment of Mr. Assange” on the grounds that it “threatens press freedom” and marks a precedent that “could effectively criminalize … common journalistic practices.” The top editors of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, and others have agreed with these experts.
The attempt to extradite Assange to the United States is a clear breakdown of the rule of law, which is continuing in the post-Trump era. The yearn to punish and send a warning to others has been given precedence over human rights, rule of law, and freedom of expression. The persecution must end now.