The government of Ecuador announced officially Thursday that it would grant Wikileaks founder Julian Assange political asylum.
"The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange," said Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño from Quito.
Adding that Assange's legal and procedural rights had been violated, Patiño said the government of Ecuador accepted the argument that he faced possible extradition and political persecution by the United States, which may or may not have a secret indictment related to Wikileaks' release of US diplomatic and military documents.
"We believe his fears are legitimate," Patiño told reporters. “We think [Assange’s] extradition is viable to a country outside the EU. If this happens, he will not get a fair trial and his rights won’t be respected. Most probably he will face a military court in the US.”
”Ecuador has confirmed Assange does not have enough protection from Australia where he holds citizenship,” Patino said.
Wikileaks supporters welcomed the news.
"We applaud Ecuador for granting asylum to Julian Assange," said Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) Executive Director Vincent Warren. "Ecuador’s action rightly offers protection to a journalist and publisher who faces persecution from the U.S. It thereby strengthens the global commitment to human rights, including government accountability and freedom of the press. We hope that Assange’s contributions to a robust democratic society are belatedly recognized by the U.S., which prides itself in its commitment to a free press."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will not allow Assange safe passage out of the country. "There is no legal basis for us to do so," he said.
Patino, in his statements, however, re-affirmed Ecuador's offer to allow Sweden to interview Assange in their embassy in London -- an offer which has repeatedly been turned down by officials in Stockholm. Swedish authorities have continued to resist requests that it simply guarantee that the WikiLeaks founder would not be extradited to the US once he is on Swedish soil. As Salon.com blogger, Glenn Greenwald tweeted following the news:
Every article on this should include that Ecuador offered: Assange will go to Stockholm tomorrow if no extradition to the US- Sweden refused
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 16, 2012
Referring to news overnight that -- in contradiction of international norms -- the UK would not allow passage of Assange out of the embassy in London, Patino said: “We trust that that the UK will offer as soon as possible the guarantee for the safe passage of asylum for Mr Assange and they will respect those international agreements they have signed in the past.”
On Wednesday evening -- in what some observers saw as a preemptive attempt to influence Ecuador's decision -- the UK government notified officials in the Latin American country that it could, citing clauses in British domestic law, storm the embassy to arrest the founder of Wikileaks.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), called the British threats are "unprecedented" and an offense to international law. “It is a Mafia-like response," Weisbrot said, "[the UK] saying we can settle this question by force rather than law because no one can stop us.”
Weisbrot noted that “The U.K. government would not resort to such extreme threats if this case were really just about a foreign citizen who was wanted for questioning – not criminal charges or a trial – in a neighboring country. Clearly there are other motives involved.”
“Who is Assange to provoke such an overreaction? He is merely wanted for questioning in Sweden, yet the Swedish authorities have rejected numerous opportunities, including Ecuador’s recent offer, to question him in London. They have done so without even offering a reason.”
Reuters, who spoke to one Assange's lawyers, added:
Per Samuelsson, a lawyer representing Assange in Sweden, said his client was relieved by Ecuador's decision to grant him asylum, as he felt Stockholm would ultimately hand him over to the United States which is still furious that his Wikileaks website leaked hundreds of thousands of secret military and diplomatic cables.
"Who would want to spend the rest of their life in prison. Especially if it were as a result of the work he has done as a journalist?" Samuelsson said.
"He has sought political asylum in order to eliminate the risk that he will spend the rest of his life in prison in the United States," Samuelsson told Reuters by telephone.
"He is not against being questioned by police about what has happened in Sweden," he added. [...]
"Now the ball is in the court of the Swedish prosecutor," he said.
"Sweden could rescind the European arrest order and then Assange could go to Ecuador where he will be beyond the reach of the United States."
In the early hours of Thursday, an enlarged police presence was observed outside the embassy building in London.
* * *
At a press conference late on Wednesday, Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patiño released details of a letter delivered through a British embassy official in Quito, the capital of the South American country.
The letter read: "You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy."
It added: "We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations."
Government officials in Ecuador did not welcome the letter or the implications.
"We want to be very clear, we're not a British colony. The colonial times are over," Patiño said after a meeting with President Rafael Correa.
Wikileaks, in a response to the news, said the UK's legal argument were "without basis."
"Any transgression against the sanctity of the embassy is a unilateral and shameful act, and a violation of the Vienna Convention, which protects embassies worldwide," the group said in a statement. "This threat is designed to preempt Ecuador’s imminent decision on whether it will grant Julian Assange political asylum, and to bully Ecuador into a decision that is agreeable to the United Kingdom and its allies."
Under international law, foreign embassies are considered sovereign soil of the embassy nation, and Wikileaks argued that to violate this long-held international norm would be a "hostile and extreme act" disproportionate to the circumstances, and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum seekers worldwide.
In response to the perceived threat and affirming the impending announcement, Correa tweeted Thursday morning:
En estos momentos, desde Cancillería, Ricardo anunciará decisión oficial del Ecuador sobre caso Assange. Nadie nos va a atemorizar!
— Rafael Correa (@MashiRafael) August 16, 2012
Translated: "In the coming moments, from (the city of) Cancilleria, Foreign Ministry official Ricardo Ecuador will announce the official decision on Assange case. Nobody is going to intimidate us."
The Ecuadorean government, which said it would announce whether it had granted Assange's asylum request on Thursday at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT), has said any attempt by Britain to remove the diplomatic status of its embassy would be a "hostile and intolerable act".
"It is too early to say when or if Britain will revoke the Ecuadorean embassy's diplomatic status," a UK Foreign Office spokesman said. "Giving asylum doesn't fundamentally change anything."
"We have a legal duty to extradite Mr Assange. There is a law that says we have to extradite him to Sweden. We are going to have to fulfill that law."
Outside the embassy, British police tussled with protesters chanting slogans in support of Assange and at least three supporters were detained.
And The Guardian adds:
Correa has said Assange could face the death penalty in the US, and for that reason he considers the asylum request a question of political persecution.
Analysts in Ecuador expressed doubts that Britain would raid the embassy.
Professor Julio Echeverria of Quito's Flasco University said Britain "has a long-established tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions", which under international law are considered sovereign territory.
A former Ecuadorean ambassador to London, Mauricio Gandara, told the Associated Press: "I refuse to believe in this threat because if asylum is granted the British government will not grant safe passage and Mr Assange could be in the embassy for a long time."
Assange denies the allegations against him, but fears he will be sent to the United States if he goes to Sweden. An offer to the Swedish authorities by Ecuador for investigators to interview Assange inside the London embassy was rejected.
# # #