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Assange seeks asylum in Ecuador

Julian Assange's legal battle in Britain to overturn an extradition order to Sweden may have come to an end, but the Wikileaks founder isn't giving up. Assange is now seeking asylum from Ecuador, and has taken refuge in Ecuador's London embassy according to Reuters.

Assange has been in Britain for the better part of the past year while fighting the extradition order to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in connection with alleged sex crimes. It is unclear whether Ecuador will accept Assange's request, but Reuters quoted Ricardo Patino, the country's foreign minister, as saying that officials are "studying and analyzing the request."

In a statement posted on the website of the Ecuadorian foreign ministry, Assange blasted his native Australia, which he said had abandoned him in the face of ongoing political persecution directed at Assange and his organization.

In the statement, Ecuador said that Assange had sought the protection of the Ecuadorean government after Australia failed to live up to its stated obligation to defend his "basic rights in front of any government and delegated to a foreign country whose constitution applies the death penalty for the crime of espionage and treason ... ignoring its obligation to protect its citizen, who is being persecuted politically."

Sweden, of course, does not have the death penalty on the books, but Assange has long maintained that the extradition order is part of a conspiracy by the American government to have him extradited to the United States in order to face espionage charges, a crime for which he could face the death penalty. Swedish prosecutors have not charged Assange with a crime.

The choice to seek asylum in Ecuador may seem surprising, but Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, has closely aligned himself with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Evo Morales' Bolivia, and like his South American compatriots, Correa preaches a political doctrine willing to crack down on press freedoms and political rights to preserve his particular brand of socialism. Additionally, Correa and Assange have something of a personal history-Assange interviewed Correa this year on his RT talk show, and Ecuador offered the Australian hacker-cum-provocateur residence in 2010.

Complicating matters, Ecuador has signed extradition treaties with both the United States and the European Union, but given Assange's decision to pursue asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, it would appear unlikely that Ecuador will enforce those agreements.

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Saudi Witch Hunt

A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.

Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.

Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It's not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses -- and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses -- because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.

Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don't recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri's case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.

The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.

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