Ecuador defies UK as it grants Assange asylum
ECUADOR has granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said on Thursday, a day after the UK government threatened to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London to arrest the former hacker.
The UK has said it is determined to extradite him to Sweden, where he is accused of rape and sexual assault, but Mr Assange fears he will ultimately be sent to the U S, which is furious that his website had leaked hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic and military cables.
Ecuador’s decision is likely to deepen a political dispute with the UK over Mr Assange’s extradition, and sets the stage for possible further confrontation between the two countries.
Mr Patino said Ecuador feared for the safety of the Australian, who had lodged an asylum request with President Rafael Correa, a self-declared enemy of "corrupt" media and US "imperialism".
"Ecuador has decided to grant political asylum to Julian Assange following the request sent to the president," Mr Patino told a news conference in Quito.
Mr Patino said Mr Assange’s extradition to a third country without proper guarantees was probable, and that legal evidence showed he would not get a fair trial if eventually transferred to the US.
"This is a sovereign decision protected by international law. It makes no sense to surmise that this implies a breaking of relations (with Britain)," Mr Patino said.
Mr Assange has been holed up inside Ecuador’s embassy in central London for eight weeks since he lost a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden. Even after Thursday’s decision, his fate is still far from clear: the UK has promised to extradite him, and the removal of the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status would expose him to immediate arrest by the UK authorities.
"We are disappointed," a foreign office spokesman said. "Under UK law, with Mr Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation."
Outside the Ecuadorian embassy, Mr Assange’s supporters shouted: "The people united will never be defeated", while waving Ecuadorian flags and holding posters showing Mr Assange’s head and the words "no extradition".
It was unclear how long Mr Assange could stay in the embassy, which is under 24-hour surveillance by the UK police.
After the announcement, the BBC reported that Mr Assange had thanked the staff in the London embassy for their support and had warned them they could expect greater stress now.
The UK has said it could use legislation from 1987, introduced in the wake of the shooting of a police officer outside the Libyan embassy in London, to strip Ecuador’s embassy of its diplomatic status.
The Ecuadorian government has bristled at the warning: its foreign minister said the UK was threatening Ecuador with a "hostile and intolerable act", comparing the action to Iran’s storming of the UK ’s Tehran embassy last year.
"I’ve lived, worked and travelled in places with proper dictatorships and nowhere have I seen violations of the Vienna Convention to this extent," Farhan Rasheed, a historian, said outside the embassy.
"Here we have a government which claims to be a government of law and justice, stretching and possibly about to break a serious binding international agreement."
The UK ’s threat to withdraw the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status also drew criticism from one of its former diplomats.
"I think the foreign office have slightly overreached themselves here," the UK ’s former ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, told the BBC. "If we live in a world where governments can arbitrarily revoke immunity and go into embassies, then the life of our diplomats and their ability to conduct normal business in places like Moscow, where I was, and North Korea becomes close to impossible."
Mr Assange, whom Sweden wants to question over accusations of rape and sexual assault made by two former WikiLeaks volunteers in August 2010, says he fears Sweden could send him on to the US. His supporters have said the US authorities want to punish him for publishing diplomatic cables which laid bare Washington’s power-brokering across the globe.
"The reaction he has is that he wants to underline that this (asylum) is aimed at the US and not against Sweden," said Per E Samuelsson, one of Mr Assange’s lawyers.
"He has sought political asylum in order to eliminate the risk that he will spend the rest of his life in prison in the US," Mr Samuelsson said.
Ecuador said it had tried to get assurances from the UK and Sweden that Mr Assange w ould not be extradited to a third country but that no assurance was given. Under European law, neither the UK nor Sweden could extradite anyone to a country where they might face the death penalty.
Swedish prosecutors have not yet charged Mr Assange, but say they have a case to take to trial, and the lawyer for the two Swedish women said his clients deserved justice.
"It’s an abuse of the asylum instrument, the purpose of which is to protect people from persecution and torture if sent back to one’s country of origin," Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the two Swedish women, said.
"It’s not about that here. He doesn’t risk being handed over to the US for torture or the death penalty. He should be brought to justice in Sweden. "