Ecuador announced Thursday it would grant asylum to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks – stoking a diplomatic row and raising the question of how the white-haired computer hacker would get out of the UK without his being clapped in handcuffs by police.
Mr. Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion, shocked his supporters when he jumped bail and took sanctuary in Ecuador’s London embassy in June. He claims that Sweden will extradite him to the US to face prosecution over the leaks of hundreds of thousands of secret American diplomatic and military cables where, he claims, his life would be at risk.
The rules for extradition from Sweden and from the UK to the US are the same, and extraditing Assange to the US from Sweden after he'd been sent there by the UK would in fact be a little harder, since the UK would retain an effective veto. Yet Assange and his supporters insist that there is a conspiracy behind the sexual assault allegations.
His asylum bid sparked a diplomatic storm Wednesday, after Britain suggested it could revoke the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status
Ecuador has repeatedly said it would not yield to pressure from Sweden, America, or Britain over Assange. The country says he faces a real threat of political persecution and extradition to the US if he is sent to Sweden. The British position has been that it's enforcing European laws and treaties, and that Ecuador shouldn't hold a veto over the legal process in the UK or Sweden.
Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s foreign minister, said Assange faced “serious threats of retaliation” and would not be guaranteed a fair trial in the US. Ecuador would protect him, he said, from a potential violation of his human rights. “We trust our friendship with the United Kingdom will remain intact," he said.
The news will delight Assange’s supporters, several of whom had gathered outside the embassy Thursday wearing Guy Fawkes masks.
Being granted asylum does not get Assange off the hook, however. Asylum or no asylum, he cannot leave the embassy without treading on British soil on the way out, thus exposing himself to arrest.
And judging by its rhetoric, Britain seems intent on fulfilling its legal obligation to Sweden. Assange fled to the red brick Ecuadorian embassy, near Harrods department store in Knightsbridge, shortly after Britain’s highest court ruled he could be extradited to Sweden. That followed successive losses in court battles against his extradition.
The UK Foreign Office released the text of its letter to Ecuador today, which warned the government may eventually take action:
"As we have previously set out, we must meet our legal obligations under the European Arrest Warrant Framework Decision and the Extradition Act 2003, to arrest Mr. Assange and extradite him to Sweden. We remain committed to working with you amicably to resolve this matter. But we must be absolutely clear this means that should we receive a request for safe passage for Mr. Assange, after granting asylum, this would be refused, in line with our legal obligations....
You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. — the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act — which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy. We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange’s presence on your premises, this route is open to us.
The law was introduced in 1987 after the siege of the Libyan embassy in 1984 after a Libyan working at the embassy shot and killed a British policewoman. The killer was eventually allowed to escape under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity.
Though diplomats said Britain was unlikely to take such a course, it provoked a furious response from Ecuador, which has called for meetings of regional foreign ministers over the row.
"The move announced in the official British statement, if it happens, would be interpreted by Ecuador as an unfriendly, hostile and intolerable act, as well as an attack on our sovereignty, which would force us to respond in the strongest diplomatic way," Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters.
Britain, however, is unlikely to storm the embassy, as some have speculated it would do to take Assange, because of fears of reprisals at its embassies around the world. Nor is Ecuador likely to make a dash to the airport with Assange, much as he might want it to.
More likely, say observers, is that Assange will remained holed up at the embassy for days to come while Ecuador figures out what to do next.