Ethical Issues Plague Wikileaks Standoff

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Asylum was granted by Ecuador to WikiLeaks' embattled founder Julian Assange in London. Whatever you may think of Assange and Wikileaks — defiant hero of the free information age or dangerous betrayer of sensitive secrets — his organization has a mixed history.

WikiLeaks released a wide variety of information over the years, some of it aimed at exposing important government cover-ups such as secret footage of two Apache helicopters falsely claiming to have encountered a firefight in Baghdad and launching a deadly air strike on civilians.

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But much of the material that WikiLeaks published has had little to do with revealing unethical behavior in governments and corporations and was used instead to merely embarrass government officials and complicate diplomacy. 

Assange's Charges

Assange requested — and has been granted — political asylum, a status typically reserved for situations in which people claim that they are subject to imprisonment, torture or death because of political persecution in their home country.

In this case Assange is asking for protection from being prosecuted for alleged sexual assaults he committed in Sweden. The law was not designed to shield murderers, rapists and other criminals from lawful legal prosecution for their crimes.

In 2010 Swedish Director of Prosecution Marianne Ny opened a rape investigation against Assange, stating that "There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed. Considering information available at present, my judgement is that the classification of the crime is rape." Rape — and especially serial rape — is a serious crime.

Assange and his supporters are essentially invoking a conspiracy, insisting that the charges against him are trumped up and a pretense to arrest him for his Wikileaks-related charges in America. A lawyer for the Swedish women called that a red herring: "He doesn't risk being handed over to the United States for torture or the death penalty. He should be brought to justice in Sweden. This is completely absurd."

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The Ecuadorian government disagreed; the Minister of Foreign Affairs issued the following statement which seemed to ignore the rape victims' allegations: "There are serious indications of retaliation from the country or countries that produced the information published by Mr. Assange; retaliation that could endanger his safety, integrity and even his life…. The evidence shows that if Mr. Assange is extradited to the United States, he wouldn't have a fair trial. It is not at all improbable he could be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment and sentenced to life imprisonment or even capital punishment."

Ethical Issues

This case raises several thorny ethical issues, including harboring people who are accused of crimes. Assange has been accused, though not convicted, of being a serial rapist. If he had been convicted and sought asylum to escape justice and prison, that would rightfully be seen as an abuse of political asylum powers. However if a person seeks asylum in order to avoid being tried in a court of law, that poses ethical problems as well.

If an accused (but not convicted) Nazi tried to seek political asylum to avoid being put on trial for war crimes, he or she would be rejected out of hand by any ethical government and turned over to authorities for trial. In this light, Ecuador runs the risk of being seen protecting accused rapists and sex offenders.

Some have suggested that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has his own political motives for granting Assange asylum — ones that have less to do with concern for Assange's personal fate (or guilt) than with Correa's reputation for suppressing journalists and a free press.

As Newsday's Daniel Akst noted, "Ecuador's president Rafael Correa hasn't exactly been a friend of the values Assange espouses…. the publisher of an Ecuadoran newspaper, facing three years behind bars for supposedly defaming Correa, took refuge in the Panamanian embassy in Quito and was eventually granted asylum. In fact, Correa has been aggressive about restraining the press at home, even as he rises to the defense of the great advocate of openness in London."

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Those who supplied the classified information to Wikileaks such as Army private Bradley Manning have clearly violated rules; Manning is currently on trial. Whether Assange violated the law in making the troves of cables public remains to be seen — if and when he faces a courtroom.

Several reputable news outlets, including The New York Times, published confidential information provided by Assange's organization and have escaped criminal prosecution. Issues raised about freedom of the press by the Wikileaks case are legitimate and deserve to have their day in court.

The granting of asylum to Assange only prolongs the standoff; he may have the protection of the Ecuadorian consulate, but he will essentially be confined to house arrest for the forseeable future. Once he leaves the building he is on British soil and subject to immediate arrest, and the embassy is watched round the clock.

His hosts may try to sneak him out of the country (a difficult feat, though one that has been done before), or try to work out a diplomatic solution. One way around the impasse would be if Sweden gave written assurances that Assange could not be extradited — a proposal which Ecuador said was refused.

Assange's claim (whether true or not) that the U.S. government is out to get him does not offer him blanket immunity from all crimes he may have committed in the past, or may commit in the future. His argument that any accusations against him must be political in nature and a guise for extradition must have limits.

In both his rape charges and his Wikileaks-related charges, Julian Assange deserves a chance to clear his name, just as his accusers deserve a chance to present their evidence to a court.

So far the situation has resulted in justice for none.

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