Julian Assange

Not an isolated incident.

On Thursday, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino confirmed that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been granted political asylum by Ecuador – in principle, at least.

You may recall that Mr. Assange first requested asylum from Ecuador on June 19, and has been resident at the country’s embassy in London, ever since.

Assange is hoping to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is still the subject of an indictment on charges of (alleged) sexual assault.

His expulsion to Sweden could (according to his defense lawyers) lead to Assange being extradited on to the USA – where he could, conceivably, face the far more serious charge of treason, for his activities as head of the whistle-blowing website allegedly responsible for WikiLeaking US diplomatic cables.

In seeking asylum, Assange joins a long line of famous (and infamous) figures in recent history who have done so, when facing hard times and persecution.

During the Soviet era, emigration restrictions were put in place to keep citizens from leaving the various countries of the Soviet Socialist Republics.

During and after World War II, similar restrictions were put in place in non-Soviet countries of the Eastern Bloc, which consisted of the Communist states of Eastern Europe and Asia.

Defections still occurred. There was a steady stream of escapees who were able to use ingenious methods to evade frontier security.

*In 1933, Ukrainian physicist George Gamow first tried to kayak across the Black Sea. He defected in Brussels, Belgium, and later discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling.

*In 1954, Russian diplomat Vladimir Petrov defected on a mission in Australia.

Petrov was a colonel in the then KGB (Soviet secret police), and his wife was an MVD officer. The Petrovs had been sent to the Canberra embassy in 1951 by the Soviet security chief, Lavrentiy Beria.

Petrov made contact with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and offered to provide evidence of Soviet espionage in exchange for political asylum. This he got – plus £5,000 Sterling – in exchange for all the documents he could bring with him from the embassy. Petrov defected on 3 April 1954.

*In 1961, Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev – fearful of KGB arrest after mingling with strangers – defected on tour in Paris, at Le Bourget Airport.

*Also in 1961, Ernst Degner (a motorcycle racer from East Germany) defected after the Berlin Wall was erected – once he knew that his wife and two children had already escaped from East to West Germany in the trunk of a car. Degner escaped (with knowledge of the loop scavenging technique developed for MZ) by driving his car from the Swedish GP to Denmark and West Germany.

*Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva defected from Russia to the United States via New Delhi, India in 1967. She strongly denounced her father Joseph Stalin’s regime, though she softened her criticism of him in the 1980s.

*The Czech film director and actor Miloš Forman defected to the USA in 1968, when the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring.

*Mikhail Baryshnikov (another icon of Russian ballet) defected during a 1974 tour in Toronto, Canada.

*Tennis legend Martina Navratilova defected from Czechoslovakia at the 1975 US Open tournament in the United States.

*Out of Africa, Ugandan strongman, military dictator, and (alleged?) sometime consumer of human flesh, Idi Amin Dada was forced from power in Uganda in 1979 by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles, after one of the bloodiest rules in African history.

Amin fled to Libya, then Iraq, before finally settling in Saudi Arabia, where he was allowed to remain – provided he stayed out of politics.

*Russian chess master Igor Vasilyevich Ivanov ran from KGB agents when his plane made an emergency stop in Gander, Canada in 1980.

*Olympic gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci defected to Austria in 1989, weeks before the revolution in her native Romania.

*In China, Tang Baiqiao (born 1967) – a former leader of the Hunan Students’ Autonomous Federation – was imprisoned for two years following the 1989 crackdown. He fled to Hong Kong in 1992, and then the U.S. He is now residing in New York City, where he has been active in the overseas China democracy movement. He has tried to return to China several times, but the government will not grant him a visa.

*Fang Lizhi (1936-2012) – former vice-president of the University of Science and Technology of China – arrived in the US after a year-long refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing. He was later a professor of physics at the University of Arizona.

The evidence is clear: Julian Assange is not alone. Now that Ecuador has granted him refuge, he takes his place among a list of high-profile exiles and emigres.

Getting onto the plane to Quito could be another matter.

It is apparent that Ecuador’s decision in Mr. Assange’s favor was prompted by the UK government’s assertion that it could enter the Ecuadoran embassy, to evict their guest, by force – a statement interpreted as an act of aggression, on the part of the host country.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has confirmed that Julian Assange will not get safe passage, if he attempts to leave the country.

Mr. Assange is still firmly stuck in the Embassy of Ecuador – on pain of arrest, if he sets foot outside the door.

At least, for the moment.

This one looks set to run (unlike Mr. Assange?), for a while.

Let’s see how it pans out.