Ecuador Grants Assange Asylum, Defying UK Threats
Kim Zetter, Wired
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange awaits decision on his application for asylum as diplomatic row brews between UK and Ecuador. (photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)
he Ecuadorian government announced on Thursday that it will grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum, defying threats from the UK government that British authorities would forcibly seize Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy if Ecuador granted Assange's request.
"We have decided to grant asylum to Julian Assange," announced Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino in Spanish to the sound of cheers from spectators in Quito.
"The UK government should respect the decision of the Ecuadorian government," he said according to a live translation of his words, "and will offer the necessary warranties so that both governments can act adequately and properly representing the international rights and the right of asylum. We also trust that the excellent relations that we have between the two countries will continue to be so and will remain in tact based on the principles and values that we have shared about democracy, peace, life quality that are only possible if you represent the fundamental rights of everyone."
Patino said that Ecuador had considered Assange's claims that if extradited to Sweden to face an investigation for sex-crimes he would be further extradited to the U.S. where he would face political persecution for publishing documents that have angered the U.S. government. He said that Ecuador had come to its decision after failing to obtain assurances from Sweden that it would not extradite Assange to the U.S.
"Ecudaor requested some guarantees from Sweden that he wouldn't be extradited to the U.S. and they rejected any commitment in this sense," Patino Said.
The decision from Ecuador comes a day after officials claimed that UK authorities threatened to raid the Ecuadorean embassy to nab the WikiLeaks leader if the country didn't hand over the fugitive.
"Today we've received a threat by the United Kingdom, a clear and written threat that they could storm our embassy in London if Ecuador refuses to hand in Julian Assange," Patino told reporters on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Patino expressed outrage over the unprecedented threat and said that the UK had no right to interfere in the rights of an individual to request asylum and the rights of Ecuador as a sovereign nation to grant that asylum. No country, he said, had the right "to blackmail or threaten in any way" the sovereignty of any other country.
The UK Foreign Office issued a statement on Wednesday saying that it had "a legal obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offences and we are remain determined to fulfil this obligation. We have an obligation to extradite Mr Assange and it is only right that we give Ecuador the full picture."
The office added that it is "still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution."
Assange has a warrant out for his arrest for breach of bail if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy so passage for him out of England, under diplomatic cover, can only occur if U.K. authorities agree to let him go.
Assange appeared in person at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on June 19 seeking asylum.
Assange asserted that Australia, his native country, appeared to have no plans to protect him, which put him in a state of "helplessness," according to a statement from Ecuador's foreign ministry Tuesday. For this reason, he sought Ecuador's protection through political asylum.
U.K. authorities issued the warrant for his arrest at the time, saying he had breached his bail conditions by staying overnight at the Ecuadorian embassy. As part of his bail conditions, granted by the High Court in December 2010, Assange was required to remain at his bail address between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. each night. He has been sequestered at the embassy for eight weeks.
Metropolitan police have been stationed outside the embassy, waiting to arrest Assange if he left the premises. The Ecuadorian embassy enjoys diplomatic immunity and, while there, Assange is beyond the reach of police. If he leaves the premises, however, he will no longer be protected by diplomatic immunity. But even with his asylum granted now, UK police can stop the vehicle or helicopter he would be travelling in to get him out of the country.
Assange requested diplomatic protection and political asylum under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." However, the second clause of the article states that "the right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations."
Assange is not, in fact, accused of political crimes. He is being sought for questioning in Sweden on rape and coercion allegations stemming from separate sexual relations he had with two women in that country in August 2010. One woman told police that Assange pinned her down to have sex with her and that she suspected he intentionally tore a condom he wore. The second woman reported that he had sex with her while she was initially asleep, failing to wear a condom despite repeated requests for him to do so. Assange has denied any wrongdoing, asserting that the sex in both cases was consensual.
His attorneys have been fighting extradition to Sweden because they say the investigation is a ruse to make it easier for the United States to further extradite him to the U.S. to face criminal charges over the publication of millions of U.S. classified diplomatic cables.
But UK prosecutor Clare Montgomery, who was in an early court proceeding representing Swedish authorities, said that even if the U.S. requested extradition of Assange from Sweden, no such extradition could take place without consent from U.K. authorities.
Swedish authorities have said Assange would be imprisoned as soon as he arrived in that country and would have a court hearing four days after extradition from the UK to determine if he would have to remain in custody.
Assange was ordered to return to Sweden in June to face the allegations after the UK Supreme Court rejected a bid to re-open his appeal case there. The judges gave him a two-week reprieve before extradition proceedings would begin, saving him from being immediately ejected from the country.