Assange Asylum: How Europe And The US Lost Their Influence In South America

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2010
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2010
Tobias Käufer

ANALYSIS - The announcement by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño at a press conference that Ecuador would grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum met with cries of approval and applause from assembled journalists.

As always, whenever the government of Ecuador calls an official press conference, mostly only journalists close to the government are invited. The great majority of Ecuadorian independent media is left up to its own devices as to how to get a hold on whatever information was imparted at the conference.

Patiño justified the decision by saying that "asylum is a fundamental human right." Ecuador is thus offering Assange a new political home. The Australian sent thanks via Twitter in Spanish a few minutes after the announcement, saying: "Thanks to Ecuador, thanks to everybody."

Tension had been growing in Ecuador for days before the announcement. It was unclear which way the Correa government would go. On the eve of the press conference, angry demonstrators assembled in front of the British Embassy in Ecuador’s capital, Quito. They bore signs reading "We’re not a colony anymore" and "Respect our sovereignty."

The Assange issue has been the cause of a diplomatic crisis between Ecuador and Great Britain for a while now. Ecuador interprets the British assertions that it will deny Assange safe conduct from the Ecuadorian Embassy as an attack on their sovereignty and the exterritorial status of its diplomatic outpost in the British capital.

The president of Ecuador’s National Assembly, Fernando Cordero, called an extraordinary meeting on Thursday evening at which the only item on the agenda was the crisis between Quito and London.

The mother and the “tyrant hunter”

Christine Assange, the mother of the controversial Australian Internet activist, had for days been having behind-the-scenes meetings in Ecuador, "to protect my son’s life."

She had previously expressed her fear that her son would be turned over to American authorities by saying: "When they do what they did to allegedly tortured Bradley Manning to one of their own citizens they’ll have even fewer scruples doing it to a foreigner."

Manning, a former member of the Army, sent confidential information to WikiLeaks and was as a consequence placed in isolation and under heightened security by U.S. authorities. Human rights organizations have been sharply critical of the U.S. handling of Manning.

Assange’s choice of lawyer had already caused quite a media stir. The well-known Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzon, known as the “tyrant hunter,” is representing the Australian.

Fourteen years ago, the Spaniard issued an international warrant for the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

An iron fist

For Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, the Assange case is an ideal opportunity to clear his reputation as an anti-media government head. For months, he was in a legal war with the independent daily El Universo newspaper, one of whose editors had questioned the President’s version of events during a police uprising two years ago. Correa reacted with an iron fist, and sued the paper for millions. The owners were looking at possible bankruptcy, and the editor in question – who has since fled to Miami – a long prison sentence.

At the height of the crisis a few weeks ago, the newspaper’s office manager, Monica Almeida, said: "We have a president with a very, very determined character. The President views the media as his political enemies." The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) sent a message directly to Correa saying: "We demand an end to state attempts at intimidation."

In the end, Correa “forgave” the newspaper, an act that speaks volumes about his relationship to a free press. And it wasn’t the first time that Correa had made his full weight felt by local media.

Reaping the seeds sown

Correa is presenting himself as a kind of patron saint to the Internet activist. Foreign Minister Patiño stressed that Assange’s website, WikiLeaks, made important information available to the general public, and that this was one of the factors that had played in Assange’s favor when the asylum question was reviewed. But the decision makes something else crystal clear: the influence of Europe and the United States in Latin America has sunk to its lowest level: both countries had been hoping that Assange would be turned over.

Overwhelmingly leftist-governed South America openly defies Washington and London and no longer allows decisions be dictated to it. The heavy-handed, sneaky way the U.S. directed things for years in South America is now backfiring.

Great Britain doesn’t have a lot of friends on the continent either. Correa had always been critical of the hard British stance in the conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. He recently stayed away from the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, because he did not agree with the refusal of the U.S. and Canada to discuss the Cuba embargo and the Falkland Islands.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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