If Assange is arrested, he faces extradition to Sweden, where he’s wanted for questioning in relation to allegations of sexual assault. Assange says the charges are made up — part of a conspiracy to have him imprisoned and spirited away to the U.S., where he believes prosecutors have a sealed grand jury indictment waiting for him. Should Assange ever be put on trial in the U.S., he could face a charge of espionage that results in a death sentence. He’s been staying in Ecuador’s British embassy since June 19.
It was that very threat that Patiño said Ecuadorian officials took into consideration. “The response from the United States has been that it cannot offer any guarantees,” With these precedents in mind the Ecuadorian government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us and in our diplomatic mission, have decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr. Assange,” he explained in a televised address.
The British foreign office said on Wednesday that there’s “legal basis” to raid Ecuador’s embassy and arrest Assange if they choose. “You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. — the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act — which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy,” a letter to Ecuadorian officials explained. “We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange’s presence on your premises, this route is open to us.”
Patiño took exception Wednesday night to what he called Britain’s “express threat,” calling the pronouncement “unacceptable” and warning that such an attack would violate international law and Ecuadorian sovereignty. “Ecuador rejects in the strongest terms the explicit threat made in Britain’s official communication,” he said, adding: “We are not a British colony.”
Though British authorities called the decision to grant asylum to Assange “regrettable,” it was welcomed by American attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents both Assange and WikiLeaks.
“Ecuador’s action rightly offers protection to a journalist and publisher who faces persecution from the U.S.,” they wrote in a media advisory. “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.”
They added: “We are deeply troubled by the reported U.K. threats to storm the Ecuadoran Embassy and arrest Assange, in clear violation of the Vienna Convention’s protection of the inviolability of sovereign embassy properties, and by the menacing police presence outside the embassy. We call on the British government to explicitly and immediately confirm that it will honor international and diplomatic commitments.”
Update: British Foreign Secretary William Hague says Assange will not be allowed to leave Ecuador’s embassy
Hague tells The Associated Press “there is no legal basis” for Britain to let Ecuador move Assange out of the country, confirming earlier statements. He insisted that the WikiLeaks founder is wanted in Sweden for questioning in a sexual assault investigation, not for publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
Update: U.S. says it is not pressuring Britain to arrest Assange
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters on Thursday that there is “no information to indicate” that the U.S. is pressuring Britain to arrest Assange. “It is an issue among the countries involved and we are not planning to inject ourselves,” she added.
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