Will WikiLeaks founder Assange go free?
Ecuador's government offered asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, on Thursday. But the British government will not allow him safe passage out of their country where he's been living in the Ecuadorian embassy for the past 60 days.
AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa
Shortly after the Andean nation granted Assange asylum Thursday, UK authorities said he would not be allowed to leaveÂ EcuadorâsÂ London embassy, where he has been holed up for 60 days.
The controversial free-speech advocate, whose website has rattled governments and industries, took refuge in the red brick building June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where heâs wanted on allegations of sexual misconduct.
On Thursday,Â EcuadorÂ Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said he shared Assangeâs fear that Sweden may send him to the United States where he said he would likely face âpersecutionâ and âhuman rights violationsâ on espionage charges.
But Assangeâs newly acquired refugee status left UK authorities unmoved.
âUnder our law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden,â the Foreign Office said in a statement. âWe shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadoran Governmentâs decision (Thursday) does not change that.â
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assange was being denied safe passage because he was wanted for âserious sexual offensesâ and not for his work with WikiLeaks, the Associated Press reported.
The impasse likely means that Assange will remain confined in the embassy for days or weeks, until an agreement is hammered out, legal experts said.
âThe way out of this would be for the United States to clearly and unequivocally say they would not seek to extradite him and not seek to indict him,â said Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents WikiLeaks and Assange in the United States. âBut I think thatâs unlikely to happen.â
EcuadorÂ said it had tried to win assurances that Assange would not be sent to a third country. It also said Sweden had turned down an offer to question Assange at the embassy.
On Wednesday, Patino warned that British authorities might be tiring of diplomacy. He said UK authorities had informed him that they were entitled to raid the embassy to detain Assange.
âItâs a clear and offensive attackâ onÂ EcuadorâsÂ right to provide asylum, Patino said, âfree of coercion, pressure or manipulation of any kind.â
EcuadorÂ has summoned the Union of South American Nations and the eight-nation ALBA bloc of countries, led by Venezuela and Cuba, to discuss the crisis. The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting Thursday.
While embassies are usually considered sovereign ground, the extent of that extraterritoriality is a matter of treaty, said David Abraham, who teaches immigration and citizenship law at the University of Miami.
âIn some settings it would be conceivable that British authorities could rush the embassy to get him. . . . Itâs conceivable but unlikely,â he said. âOn the other hand, he canât live there forever.â
As supporters chanted outside the embassy and waved banners in support of Assange, media outlets speculated how he might escape. Some said he might be smuggled out in an embassy car or a man-sized diplomatic pouch. One English legal expert saidÂ EcuadorâsÂ best bet was to give Assange diplomatic immunity by naming him ambassador to the United Nations.
Lengthy embassy stays arenât unheard of. Roman Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years, until 1971, to escape a treason conviction.
WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 as a whistle-blowing website where documents could be posted anonymously. But the organization and its platinum-haired founder caught global attention in 2010 when they began releasing millions of confidential and secret U.S. State Department cables. âCablegateâ roiled Latin America and ledÂ EcuadorÂ to eject U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges after she suggested in one of the communiques that President Correa was turning a blind eye to police corruption.
In a statement accepting Assangeâs asylum request,Â EcuadorâsÂ Foreign Ministry accused the United States of persecuting Assange âfor releasing compromising information sensitive to the U.S. government.â
Assange has repeatedly said the Swedish allegations, including rape, are trumped-up and designed to silence him and his organization. His mother and supporters have said they fear heâll be sent to the United States on a secret indictment where he could be tortured or executed for espionage. But no indictment or extradition request is known to exist.
In addition, Swedish law would likely prohibit the country from sending Assange to any nation where he would face capital punishment, Abraham said.
âAll the European Union countries have rejected the death penalty,â he said. âBut itâs possible for the U.S. to indict him on all sorts of things that donât carry the death penalty.â
The crisis is likely to put a strain on UK-Latin America relations. The ALBA bloc of nations said there would be âserious consequencesâ if authorities attempted to detain Assange in the embassy.
Correa, who is likely to run for re-election in February, has called Assange a hero.
âNo one is going to terrorize us!â the president wrote on Twitter shortly before the asylum announcement was made.
Correa and Assange have been friendly since at least May, when the WikiLeaks founder interviewed him for his television show "The World Tomorrow," which runs on Russian state television.
As the two men were signing off, Correa said that he and Assange were both being hounded by the United States.
âCheer up, cheer up,â Correa said. âAnd welcome to the club of the persecuted.â