August 20, 2012

JUST ABOUT eight weeks ago, Julian Assange — the WikiLeaks founder and self-styled victim of an imagined international political conspiracy — sought asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. After Britain’s Supreme Court refused his appeal against extradition to Sweden, where Mr. Assange is wanted for questioning on alleged sex crimes, the 41-year-old Australian hacker broke his bail conditions and fled to the embassy, a few hundred yards from Harrods department store. Last week, Ecuador granted his asylum request.

Given that British authorities are sure to arrest Mr. Assange the minute he steps outside embassy premises, what this arrangement gives him is essentially imprisonment without a sentence. More interesting is what advantage Ecuador envisions from protecting an alleged sex criminal who was allowed to exhaust his legal options in one democracy and would be allowed to do the same in another.

Mr. Assange claims that extradition to Sweden will result in his being turned over to the United States, which, because of its embarrassment over the secret diplomatic cables and military logs WikiLeaks made public, might subject him to the death penalty. At a news conference of sorts on Sunday, in which Mr. Assange was careful not to stick too far out from the Ecuadoran Embassy’s balcony, he went so far as to call on the United States to end its “witch hunt” against his organization.

Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s outspokenly anti-American president, has stoked fantasies like these, having welcomed Mr. Assange to the so-called “club of the persecuted.” In January, he welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Quito. But he’s also certainly aware that the United States has neither charged the WikiLeaks founder with any crime nor demanded his extradition. Why then offer asylum?

Mr. Correa — who has cracked down on press freedoms in his own country — has begun to show signs of establishing the same sort of autocracy that Hugo Chavez has brought to Venezuela. He may imagine that protecting Mr. Assange will give a much-needed boost to his international reputation. But it also could have disastrous economic consequences for his country. As we’ve said before, the United States that Mr. Correa so despises allows Ecuador to export many goods duty-free, supports roughly 400,000 jobs in a country of 14 million people and accounts for one-third of Ecuador’s foreign sales. Congress could easily decide to diminish that privileged commercial access early next year.

Is Mr. Assange really worth the risk?