The Foreign Office says it expects a decision by Ecuador on Thursday on the fate of Julian Assange, who has taken refuge in the country’s embassy in London and asked for political asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden.
A spokesman said British officials had had an “amicable” conversation with the Ecuadorean ambassador, Anna Alban, when she visited the Foreign Office on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
“She got an understanding of our legal position and we gained an understanding of theirs,” the spokesman said. “It is our understanding overnight that they are minded to reach a view in Quito today [on the asylum request], or in the very near future. There is no reason to believe that all this was anything other than a surprise to them, and they are dealing with an unprecedented set of circumstances.”
In a television interview in Rio on Wednesday, however, the Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, said: “We’ll take the time necessary because this is a very serious matter that we treat with full responsibility.”
Talking to a Latin American satellite channel, teleSUR, he said that Assange needed somewhere “to continue his mission” to fight for freedom of expression, and that it was fully within Ecuador’s sovereign rights to consider his asylum request.
Foreign Office diplomats said that as far as they were aware it was the first time in British history that someone had taken refuge in an embassy in London to ask for political asylum in another country. They said the decision of what to do in case the Ecuadorean government does grant asylum would be a matter for the London Metropolitan police and the Home Office.
A spokeswoman at the Ecuadorean embassy in Knightsbridge said Assange was in good spirits in anticipation of the decision, which is expected to be announced either in Quito or in Rio, where Correa, is attending the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development.
“He is OK, fine. We are all here waiting for what the decision is going to be,” she said.
Alban described her discussions with the Foreign Office as “cordial and constructive”, and welcomed British readiness to co-operate with her government in the search for a solution.
In a statement on the embassy website she said her foreign ministry in Quito would “take into account Ecuador’s long and well-established tradition in supporting human rights”.
But Alban added: “I also emphasised to the UK government that it was not the intention of the Ecuadorean government to interfere with the processes of either the UK or Swedish governments.”
Britain’s supreme court last month upheld a high court ruling from last year that Assange could be extradited to Sweden, where he faces accusations of raping a woman and sexually molesting and coercing another in Stockholm while on a visit to give a lecture in August 2010.
Assange says the sex was consensual and the allegations against him are politically motivated. His WikiLeaks website has published a huge quantity of US diplomatic and military cables, and his lawyers say that if he goes to Sweden he risks extradition to the US on espionage charges for which the penalty can be death.
Assange, an Australian national, has until 28 June to take his case to a European court of in Strasbourg if he wishes to argue he did not receive a fair trial in Britain.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said on his Twitter account: “We are now studying the risk claimed by Assange that he would be face a politically motivated trial and could be sentenced to death.”
In a tweet this afternoon Patino reported: “Representatives of civil society at Rio+20 are waiting outside President Correa’s hotel to demand that he gives Julian Assange asylum.”