Ecuador granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum yesterday, setting up a confrontation with the U.K. that said it won’t allow him to leave the country after two months in the South American nation’s London embassy.
Assange, 41, sought asylum at the diplomatic building on June 19 after exhausting options in U.K. courts to avert extradition to Sweden, where the Australian citizen faces questioning on allegations of rape and sexual molestation.
“Ecuador’s government, faithful to its tradition of protecting those who seek protection in its territory, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum,” Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters in Quito yesterday. The evidence “backs up Julian Assange’s fears that he is a victim of political persecution as a result of his determined defense for freedom of expression and a free press.”
The U.K. government said yesterday it has a “binding obligation” to extradite Assange to Sweden and intends to fulfill it. It said it doesn’t recognize the concept of “diplomatic asylum” and won’t grant safe passage out of Britain, setting up a legal showdown if Assange steps outside the embassy door.
“We are disappointed by the statement from Ecuador’s foreign minister,” the Foreign Office in London said in a statement. “The British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation.”
Ecuador’s government on Aug. 15 accused the U.K. of threatening to “assault” its embassy in London to arrest Assange. The U.K. sent a letter to the embassy warning that it would enter the compound if Assange isn’t handed over to local authorities, Patino said.
While the U.K. won’t storm the embassy, “the harboring of criminals” by foreign missions is not “a permitted function under the Vienna Convention,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday.
“It is important to understand that this is not about Mr. Assange’s activities at WikiLeaks or the attitude of the United States of America,” Hague said. “He is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offenses. We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the U.K., nor is there any legal basis for us to do so.”
A crowd of several hundred Assange supporters, Occupy protesters in masks, journalists and police officers yesterday surrounded the embassy, located close to the Harrods department store in London’s Knightsbridge district. The group broke into chants such as “hands off Ecuador” and “freedom fighter” before the asylum announcement was made. A police officer there said three people were arrested for public disorder offenses.
The Australian government will continue to offer Assange consular assistance, the office of Foreign Minister Bob Carr said in an e-mailed statement today. “The asylum decision itself is a matter between Mr. Assange and the governments of Ecuador and the U.K.,” it said.
Assange, first arrested in London in December 2010, breached the terms of his bail by staying at the embassy and may be arrested again if he steps outside the building, the Metropolitan Police Service said in June.
The U.K. Court of Appeal ruled in November that he should return to Sweden to face the sexual molestation allegations. He hasn’t been charged with a crime.
As the standoff begins, Ecuador must now consider how it plans to get Assange from its embassy to the airport, said Douglas McNabb, senior principal at international criminal defense law firm McNabb Associates PC. It’s unclear legally whether he can remain under diplomatic protection when he leaves the compound, he said.
“I suspect Ecuador would have their own jet that would be able to take him from probably Heathrow into Quito, but how do they get him from the embassy to the airport?” McNabb said in a telephone interview from Houston.
Both nations face “intense” negotiations, said Boston University School of Law Professor Robert Sloane. International treaties, to which both the U.K. and Ecuador are signatories, require the U.K. to respect the South American nation’s embassy unless Britain determines Ecuador is interfering with its internal affairs, he said.
“The only remedy for a violation of these obligations with respect to Mr. Assange would be for the United Kingdom to declare particular diplomatic personnel persona non grata, requiring them to depart the country,” Sloane said in an e-mailed statement. “In theory, the United Kingdom could also break off diplomatic relations with Ecuador altogether and order its embassy privileges accordingly terminated, but in reality that is almost unthinkable.”
Sweden’s Director of Public Prosecution, Marianne Ny, declined to comment on the matter “as long as it is handled by British authorities,” according to a statement on the DPP’s website. “The fact that Julian Assange has been granted asylum in Ecuador does not affect the Swedish criminal investigation.”
The two women who accused Assange of sexual misconduct are both supporters of WikiLeaks and let Assange stay at their homes during a speaking tour in Sweden in 2010. The allegations became public around the same time he released U.S. diplomatic secrets through his WikiLeaks website. Assange requested asylum to avoid what he says are U.S. efforts to punish him for leaking the cables on the Internet.
The U.K. has the power, under the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, to review the diplomatic status of an embassy, a spokesman for the Foreign Office, who declined to be named in line with government practice, said yesterday. The U.K. would prefer to reach an agreement with Ecuador, he said.
The Crown Prosecution Service declined to comment yesterday. Spokesmen at the Metropolitan Police Service were unavailable to comment.
Alex Carlile, an opposition Liberal Democrat lawmaker in Parliament’s upper House of Lords and a practicing lawyer, questioned the legal arguments for granting Assange asylum, saying there was “no sound basis” for Ecuador’s decision.
“The moment Mr. Assange leaves, he will be arrested and he will be deported to Sweden,” Carlile said on Sky News television yesterday. “He knows that, the Ecuadoreans know that. This is a difficult situation, but it is absolutely clear that the Ecuadoreans have no sound basis for the extraordinary stand they have taken.”
Ecuador is concerned Assange may eventually be extradited to the U.S. where he wouldn’t receive a fair trial and faces life in prison or execution for espionage and treason, said Patino, who also led Ecuador’s efforts to block international action against Libya’s former ruler Muammar Qaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, an ally of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, last year expelled the U.S. ambassador to Quito, Heather Hodges, over allegations she made in a classified diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, that he knowingly appointed a corrupt police chief.
The two nations have also sparred over Correa’s attempts to imprison journalists for publishing remarks he found offensive. In April, President Barack Obama named Ecuador as an example of nations that have implemented measures restricting free speech.