Ecuador grants political asylum to Julian Assange

LONDON — Britain doesn't want him. Ecuador does. Therein lies a very large rub.

A tense diplomatic faceoff grew uglier Thursday after Ecuador announced it was granting political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website who has been holed up for the last two months in its embassy in an upscale London neighborhood.

Officials in Quito say Assange faces political persecution for releasing confidential documents embarrassing to the U.S. and other governments, and demanded that he be given safe passage out of Britain. The British government says it is duty-bound to ship Assange to Sweden instead, where he's wanted for questioning on allegations of sexual assault.

PHOTOS: WikiLeaks founder granted asylum in Ecuador

The impasse leaves the anti-secrecy campaigner a virtual prisoner in the office where he has been cocooned since he jumped bail on June 19, beyond the reach of Scotland Yard.

That, in turn, has sparked lively discussions over the next moves in a bit of absurdist diplomatic theater starring an Australian in Britain asking Ecuador for asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden because he fears the United States.

How might he be smuggled out of the embassy? In an oversized diplomatic bag? In the ambassador's limo?

Both seem unlikely. A quick and simple solution, if ever there was one, appears to be out of the question.

"It looks like we're set for a long standoff," said Dapo Akande, an expert on international law at Oxford University. "It's difficult to see that one side is going to back down in the short term."

Assange, 41, denies the allegations at the root of the matter: that he assaulted two women during separate encounters in Stockholm in August 2010. He acknowledges having sex with them but disputes their accusations that coercion or force was involved.

He insists that the allegations are part of a plot to remove him from Britain and ultimately to ship him to the U.S., where he says authorities are eager to put him on trial — and some politicians have said he should be executed — for orchestrating the leak of thousands of classified State Department and Pentagon documents.

Assange sought refuge inside Ecuador's embassy shortly after Britain's Supreme Court ruled that his extradition to Sweden could proceed. Police say his bail conditions obliged him to abide by a nightly curfew at a designated address, and that he would face arrest the moment he stepped outside the embassy, located in the Knightsbridge neighborhood. Under international convention, embassies are considered sovereign territory of the countries they represent.

The choice of Ecuador as protector wasn't random: Assange had earlier struck up a rapport with President Rafael Correa during an interview he conducted with the Ecuadorean leader for a Kremlin-backed Russian television channel.

But critics noted the irony of Assange appealing for help to a man accused of cracking down on journalists in his own country.

Simon Pachano, a political scientist at Flacso graduate school and think tank in Quito, said offering Assange asylum allowed Correa to show he was protecting a person regarded by some as a icon of free expression, "which would permit the Ecuadorean government to counter the poor image that has grown internationally with the persecution of domestic news media."

Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, reacted furiously Wednesday to a letter from British officials that he said was a threat to raid the embassy to arrest Assange. Ecuador is not "a British colony," Patino said.

On Thursday, Patino said Ecuador accepted Assange's argument that he was in danger of being shipped off to the U.S. and that, in essence, neither Britain nor Sweden could be trusted to give him due process.

"We believe his fears are legitimate," Patino told reporters.

Assange hailed the Ecuadorean government for having the courage to grant him asylum.

Sweden summoned the Ecuadorean ambassador to denounce the decision. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, rejected the aspersions against his country.

Ecuador was the one flouting international protocol, he said, by using its embassy for "the harboring of alleged criminals."

Some observers have suggested that Assange could try to make a run for freedom in the Ecuadorean ambassador's car, which would be shielded by diplomatic immunity. But you can't drive off an island, and getting past vigilant police officers, or avoiding arrest at a British airport, would probably be insurmountable challenges.

As for stuffing him inside a diplomatic bag or crate, Akande at Oxford said that that tactic had already been tried once before, and failed. In 1984, Nigeria attempted to smuggle a former government minister out of Britain inside a diplomatic carton, but customs agents foiled the plot.

For its part, Britain could cut off diplomatic relations with Ecuador, which would end the embassy's diplomatic immunity. But that would be a "highly explosive" step, Akande said.

And so Assange is likely to have to sweat it out inside the embassy, where reports say he and his ever-present laptop have taken to occupying one room, for days, weeks, possibly months to come.

There is precedent for extended stays in diplomatic missions. The late Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife took refuge insidethe U.S. Embassyfor more than a year, following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, until Beijing allowed the couple to leave for America.

And after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Roman Catholic Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty fled for safety insidethe U.S. Embassyin Budapest, where he remained for 15 years.

Hague, the British foreign secretary, acknowledged that Assange's protracted extradition drama, which began with his arrest in December 2010, could drag on. And on.

"It could go on for a long time, but we will continue to work at it with the Ecuadoreans to try to bring a solution about," Hague said, adding: "There is no time limit for resolving this."

henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Chris Kraul in Miami contributed to this report.

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