U.K., Ecuador seek solution to standoff over Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange took shelter in the Ecuadorean embassy after he exhausted his appeals in the U.K. to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual-misconduct allegations.
The Associated Press
LONDON — Britain is seeking an amicable solution with Ecuador to their diplomatic standoff over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a U.K. official insisted Saturday, as the secret-spiller prepared to make his first public statement since the Latin American nation confirmed it would offer him asylum.
Assange, who took shelter in the Ecuadorean embassy on June 19 after he exhausted all routes of appeal in the U.K. to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over sexual-misconduct allegations, is scheduled to make a public statement Sunday.
London diplomats have spoken with Ecuadorean Ambassador Ana Alban since the South American country granted Assange asylum on Thursday, a move that threatens to further complicate Sweden's two-year long attempt to have the activist extradited from Britain.
British officials in Ecuador's capital, Quito, have also contacted the country's foreign ministry to discuss a resumption of talks over the case, and to quell anger prompted when Britain appeared to suggest it could invoke a little-known law to strip Ecuador's embassy of diplomatic privileges — meaning police would be free to move in and detain Assange.
But there was little sign of a friendlier atmosphere Saturday from Quito, however, where Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on his weekly broadcast that Britain's "direct threat" about possibly entering the embassy had come "in a totally offensive, inconsiderate, intolerable manner."
He said Ecuador "never wanted to impede the investigation of a supposed crime. What we wanted to impede is the extradition to a third country."
Correa complained again that Britain and Sweden had declined to give assurances against such an extradition.
British diplomats have repeated assurances the government was simply setting out the country's legal options, not making a specific threat to storm the nation's mission — a small apartment in London's ritzy Knightsbridge district, close to the famed Harrods department store.
"We are continuing to seek a diplomatic solution," a British government official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly on the talks with Ecuador. "We remain ready to continue the conversations we have had, but that is now a question for the Ecuadorians."
Britain had held seven rounds of formal talks with Ecuador over the stalemate before Thursday's decision. But Foreign Secretary William Hague insists Britain has no option but to meet the obligations of a European arrest warrant and send Assange to Stockholm.
Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who is representing Assange, said Ecuador may consider making an appeal to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in order to compel Britain to grant Assange safe passage out of the country.
Assange, an Australian, shot to international prominence in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets — including 250,000 U.S. embassy cables that highlight the sensitive, candid and often embarrassing backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats.
As he toured the globe to highlight the disclosures, two women accused him of sex offenses during a trip to Sweden.
Assange and his supporters claim the Swedish case is merely the opening gambit in a U.S.-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the U.S. over his work with WikiLeaks — something disputed by Swedish authorities and the women involved.
Diplomatic cables obtained under freedom of information laws and published Saturday by Australia's The Age newspaper showed Australian diplomats have held discussions on Assange's fate with the U.S.
WikiLeaks declined to comment in more detail on Assange's planned statement Sunday; however, the organization has said Assange plans to speak outside the embassy — which, if correct, could expose him to arrest.
Outside the apartment block, covering all possible escape routes front and back, and at strategic points inside, including the lobby, staircase and elevator access areas, a squad of about 50 Scotland Yard police officers stand ready to arrest Assange if he ventures out of the embassy and its cocoon of diplomatic immunity. More police officers wait in two vans nearby, along with a large armored transporter of the kind used to carry prisoners.
British newspapers, quoting Scotland Yard, say the watch is costing $80,000 a day, at a time when the London police force is under orders to cut 20 percent of its budget as part of the government's austerity drive. Officials say those expenses are only part of the overall bill incurred in the Assange case.
Material from The New York Times was included in this report.