WikiLeaks' Assange granted asylum, but can he get to Ecuador?
The impasse has left WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange a virtual prisoner in Ecuador's embassy in London.
Los Angeles Times
LONDON — Britain doesn't want him. Ecuador does. Therein lies a very large rub.
A tense diplomatic faceoff grew uglier Thursday after Ecuador said it was granting political asylum to Julian Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website who has been holed up for the past two months in its embassy in London's upscale Knightsbridge neighborhood.
Officials in Quito say Assange faces political persecution for releasing confidential documents embarrassing to the United States 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, where he's wanted for questioning on accusations of sexual assault.
The impasse has left the anti-secrecy campaigner a virtual prisoner in the office where he has been cocooned since he jumped bail 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, which is not far from posh retailers Harvey Nichols and Harrods? In an oversized diplomatic bag? In the ambassador's limo?
Among the options observers are gleefully discussing:
Diplomatic immunity: Some supporters want Assange to be granted Ecuadorean citizenship and made a member of the embassy staff, so he would be protected by diplomatic immunity. But diplomatic status must be recognized by the host government, something the British government is exceedingly unlikely to do. (Under international convention, embassies are considered sovereign territory of the countries they represent.)
Legal expert Carl Gardner raised another longshot: Ecuador could name Assange its representative to the United Nations. That would make him immune from arrest while traveling to U.N. meetings around the world. Assange could be stripped of his role as representative by the U.N. General Assembly, but in the meantime would be protected.
Make a run for it: London police have been stationed outside the embassy since Assange holed up there. He could try to sneak past them in disguise, perhaps trying to lose pursuers in the aisles of Harrods. But he would be liable to arrest if identified.
Spiriting him to a private airfield or secluded port seems like an option, but legal experts say police will be vigilant. "As soon as he steps off the premises, even if he goes through an embassy car, he can still be arrested — and will be," extradition lawyer Julian Knowles said.
Smuggle him out: What about smuggling Assange out of the embassy in a diplomatic pouch? Such a scheme is not without precedent. In 1984, Britain refused to extradite Umaru Dikko, a former Nigerian government minister accused of corruption in his homeland. He was subsequently kidnapped outside his London home, drugged and stuffed in a shipping crate destined for Lagos as diplomatic luggage.
But the kidnappers made a crucial error: They didn't label the box a diplomatic bag. British Customs officials opened the crate at Stansted Airport and found Dikko, who was uninjured. Three Israelis and a Nigerian were convicted over the incident.
In 1964, a man named Joseph Dahan — who turned out to be Mordechai Louk, a Moroccan-born Israeli spying for Egypt — was abducted from a Rome cafe, drugged and placed in a trunk marked "diplomatic mail" addressed to the Egyptian foreign ministry. Italian authorities discovered the plot when an airport guard heard moaning inside the trunk.
Lawyer Alex Carlile said a diplomatic bag would have to go through a British airport or seaport, and if Customs officials suspected it did not contain "legitimate diplomatic material," they could open it.
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, said Dapo Akande, an expert on international law at Oxford University.
In any case, a quick and simple solution appears to be out of the question.
"It looks like we're set for a long standoff," Akande said. "It's difficult to see that one side is going to back down." Assange, 41, denies the accusations at the root of the affair: 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 the accusations are part of a plot to remove him from Britain and ultimately ship him to the United States, where he says authorities are eager to put him on trial — 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 his extradition to Sweden could proceed. Police say his bail conditions obliged him to abide by a nightly curfew at a designated address and he would face arrest the moment he stepped outside the embassy.
The choice of Ecuador as protector wasn't random: Assange had earlier struck up a relationship with President Rafael Correa during an interview he conducted with the Ecuadorean leader.
Critics noted the irony of Assange appealing for help from 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 an 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 to the United States and that, in essence, neither Britain nor Sweden could be trusted to give him due process.
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."
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.
Hague, the British foreign secretary, acknowledged 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."
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.