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Victims of Ecuadorian government prosecution include newspaper El Universo and weekly Vanguardia.
Monday, August 27, 2012

Front Page Glory

A critical view from Ecuador of Julian Assange’s asylum.




QUITO-- Ecuadorian journalists see a silver lining in president Rafael Correa’s approval of diplomatic asylum for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The world media focus on the case of the former Australian hacker, holed up for more than two months in Ecuador’s London embassy, will also put a spotlight on Correa’s media-bashing track record, they say. Foreign media have already begun to pick up news of the equipment seizures at broadcasters and weekly magazine Vanguardia, or on the radio and television stations shut down altogether in recent weeks. Pledging to protect Assange, who helped make public hundreds of thousands of classified US documents, in the name of freedom of expression also backs local journalists in their demands that the populist government uphold those same standards not just in the apartment in London’s fashionable Knightsbridge neighborhood, but in the rest of its sovereign territory at well.

Reporting in Ecuador continues to meet criteria of “somewhat free,” as termed by US non-governmental organization Freedom House. The government has however continually slowed the flow of information. Economic and crime statistics have become more difficult to find and irregularly reported. Correa has blocked his ministers from talking to the private press. The disproportionate, $80 million libel suit against Guayaquil newspaper El Universo and its staffers made global headlines, even though the obedient judge whittled the fine down to $40 million. It damaged Correa’s international credibility, which had previously been helped by his technocratic, US and Belgian education and the apparent stability he had brought Ecuador after a decade of political and economic instability.

In much of the internationally relevant press, as well as among foreign governments, the government’s antics have led Ecuador to lose prestige. This hasn’t happened in former colonial powers alone. China has demanded tough terms for loans. Brazil only sent a deputy minister to the UNASUR foreign ministers’ meeting in Guayaquil last weekend. The clearest sign of the lack of confidence comes in the dry statistics of foreign direct investment, which remain a pittance compared with the rest of Latin America.

On the other hand, Correa’s bread-and-circus policies have won notoriety and applause in the anti-US camp. Satirical tweeter CETV Noticias said that Assange deserved asylum already because he had single-handedly done more to promote Ecuador than the whole of the tourism ministry over the past five years. Aside from the criticism that Correa pursues a double standard over media policy, the government handled the most recent climax of the Assange crisis unusually well. It was Britain that looked bad by handing Ecuador a veiled threat to arrest the Australian bail-skipper inside the embassy.

An aide-mémoire, as its name implies, is nothing more than a document handed over to accompany diplomatic conversations. It’s not an official note in the sense that it doesn’t come with an official letterhead or a signature, being handed in on a simple piece of paper just as it has been circulated on the internet since Ecuador accused the UK of preparing an imminent assault on the embassy. Leaking one is anything but common diplomatic usage. Diplomats also say that Ecuador had long been informed that the UK believes Assange’s flight to the embassy a breach of the Vienna Convention because the possible charges against him are criminal, not political – much like Patiño himself argued against the refuge sought by El Universo director Carlos Pérez in the Panamanian embassy in Quito after he was convicted of libeling Correa. Patiño said at the time that he’d pay the cab fare for Pérez to head to the airport but, much like UK foreign office officials have said, refused to give safe conduct, saying that courts hadn’t issued an arrest warrant for Pérez despite him having been convicted of libeling the president. In Latin America, most countries including Ecuador have however agreed to provide safe conduct automatically by ratifying regional asylum agreements. So while Panama, which along with the US and Canada voted against discussing the UK threat before the Organization of American States, could say that Ecuador had to provide safe passage to Pérez, Ecuador can’t demand the same thing from London. No country must actually give reasons for providing asylum or safe passage, according to a former senior Ecuadorian diplomat.

Perhaps foreign secretary William Hague had run out of patience with an administration that had a long list of grievances with a marginal partner like Ecuador, including scrapping the bilateral investment guarantee treaty and calling for a boycott of the UK to force its hand in the Argentine-British dispute over the Falkland Islands, like El Comercio columnist Grace Jaramillo noted. Still, he was whistled back by prime minister David Cameron, according to the Daily Mail.

But the veiled threat did more damage than good, allowing Patiño and Correa to fly the anti-colonial flag and rally governments of former colonies in the Americas around its angry rebuke of the UK. In the days before the decision, rumors circled that said that Ecuador was seriously considering naming Assange its ambassador to the United Nations in order to get him out, or think of some other method that would fly in the face of diplomatic conventions. Instead, Patiño quickly got over his indignation over the UK’s “clumsiness” to read the paper prepared by the foreign ministry and lawyers to explain the reasons behind granting Assange asylum. In a nutshell, Ecuador argues that the right to asylum is universally guaranteed through the UN’s human rights charter, and that Ecuador shares Assange’s worry that Sweden could eventually extradite him to the US via the “extraordinary rendition” mechanism that led to some possibly illegal extraditions. Of course, no EU country may extradite anyone who risks facing the death penalty, as Swedish and British diplomats have told their Ecuadorian counterparts, and as Sweden made public – even with a translation into Spanish. While failing to close the Guantánamo prison, US president Barack Obama however quickly banned the practice after taking office.

Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt has meanwhile ridiculed Ecuadorian criticism of its legal system, telling Patiño that he “lives in a fantasy world.” In comparison with Sweden, Ecuador’s judiciary has suffered convulsion for close to two decades and, since a controversial referendum last year, direct interference from the  executive branch. A scathing editorial in US magazine Time also blasted Correa for a lack of sensitivity to the accusations the two Swedish women raised against Assange because he said that these acts “would not be considered in any case a felony in Latin America.”

Yet while Bildt poked holes in some of Ecuador’s arguments, the Swedish judiciary probably holds the key to resolving the controversy in the near term. If it were to agree to send prosecutors to question Assange at the embassy, it would return the ball back into Quito’s court.

Baltasar Garzón, Assange’s recently-picked Spanish star lawyer, has said that he would take the case to the International Court of Justice to force the UK to provide safe passage, although that court has only acknowledged the practice of diplomatic asylum for Latin America, where bilateral and multilateral treaties establish the practice. According to Garzón, when he sought to have former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet extradited to Spain from London, he requested the opportunity to question him there. Both Pinochet and the British authorities refused, he added. If Ecuadorian officials’ derision of the Swedish justice system angered the Scandinavians, Correa in a meeting with foreign correspondents this week raised the bar for a deal even higher by saying that “if the Swedes were offended, that’s just too bad” and demanding the UK retract its unofficial aide-mémoire.

Garzón heads an international team observing Correa’s judicial reform in Ecuador. He says that his defense of Assange doesn’t hold a risk of conflict of interest because Assange has no case pending here. For Ecuador’s administration, the short-term media impact is positive and has outweighed any internal concerns about damages that could be wrought to Ecuador’s commercial ties to Europe and the US. A critical editorial in the Washington Post said the US trade preferences could be further put into question. This is far fetched, given that the trade preferences are linked to the fight against drugs, where no allegations have been raised that Ecuador has stopped complying. But regarding the EU, a crucial market for many non-oil exports, Correa’s verbal attacks on the UK and now Sweden won’t help the cause of trade negotiations, even if he thinks he can let negotiators understand that grandstanding is one thing and serious politics another. Overall, the long-term implications of the Assange affair on the heels of the latest noise over dealings with Iran has further complicated Ecuador’s commercial and political situation in the international community.

This commentary originally appeared in Ecuador Weekly Report published by Analytica. Republished with permission.

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