Ecuador grants asylum to WikiLeaks' Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the Supreme Court in London in this Feb. 1, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/Files
Ecuador has granted political asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said on Thursday, a day after the British government threatened to storm the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest Assange.
Britain has said it is determined to extradite the former computer hacker, who enraged Washington in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website published secret U.S. diplomatic cables, to Sweden where he has been accused of rape and sexual assault.
"Ecuador has decided to grant political asylum to Julian Assange following the request sent to the President," Patino told a press conference in Quito.
He argued that Assange's personal security was at risk, extradition to a third country without proper guarantees was probable, and legal evidence showed he would not have a fair trial if eventually transferred to the United States.
"This is a sovereign decision protected by international law. It makes no sense to surmise that this implies a breaking of relations (with Britain)," Patino added.
Even with asylum granted, Assange has little chance of leaving the Ecuadorean embassy in London without being arrested.
There has been speculation he could travel to an airport in a diplomatic car, be smuggled out in a diplomatic bag, or even be appointed an Ecuadorean diplomat to give him immunity.
But lawyers and diplomats see those scenarios as practically unworkable.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is a self-declared enemy of "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism," and part of a left-leaning block of South American leaders.
He apparently hit it off with Assange during a TV interview the Australian did with him in May. Correa joked then with Assange that he had joined "the club of the persecuted".
Foreign minister Patino called the U.K. government's threat to enter the embassy "brutal," and acknowledged the only way Assange could travel to Ecuador would be if Britain grants him a safe pass to travel to an airport.
Sweden summons Ecuador ambassador
Sweden's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday it was summoning Ecuador's ambassador after a decision by Ecuador to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange.
"Ecuador has unacceptably stopped the Swedish judicial process and has hindered European judicial cooperation," said Anders Jorle, a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry.
Assange is accused of rape, sexual molestation and illegal coercion in Sweden.
Assange feared life in jail
Julian Assange feared Sweden would hand him over to the United States where he would be jailed for life if he returned to the Nordic country to answer rape allegations, his lawyer said on Thursday, after Ecuador granted the Wikileaks founder asylum.
Assange, an Australian, has been holed up in Quito's embassy in London for eight weeks after he lost a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged rape, sexual molestation and illegal coercion.
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.
Samuelsson said he did not think Britain would make good on a threat of stripping Ecuador's embassy of its diplomatic status so it could go in and arrest Assange, but said London was in an impossible situation of being obliged to respect the international arrest order as well as Ecuador's decision.
"It is important that all three countries cooperate to find a solution for the situation that works for everybody," he said.
The most obvious way to end the stand-off was for Swedish prosecutors to go to London and question Assange at Ecuador's embassy, he added.
The prosecutor in charge, Marianne Ny, rejected such a suggestion in July, but Samuelsson said that Ecuador's decision had changed the situation.
"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."