Ecuador granted political asylum to Julian Assange yesterday, ratcheting up tension in a standoff with Britain which has warned it could revoke the diplomatic status of Quito’s embassy in London to allow the extradition of the WikiLeaks frontman.
The high-profile Australian former hacker has been holed up inside the red-brick embassy in central London for eight weeks since he lost a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over rape allegations.
Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said he feared for the safety and rights of Assange, which is why he said his country had decided to grant him asylum.
“Ecuador has decided to grant political asylum to Julian Assange,” Patino told a press conference in Quito.
Ecuador’s decision takes what has become an international soap opera to new heights since Assange first angered the US and its allies by publishing secret US diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks Web site.
Outside the embassy near London’s famed Harrods department store, supporters made the announcement over a loudspeaker to cheers and clapping from protesters, who had gathered outside the building in support of Assange.
Protesters shouted: “The people united will never be defeated,” bearing Ecuadoran flags and holding posters showing Assange’s head that read “no extradition.”
Before the decision was announced, Britain said it could use a little-known piece of legislation to strip Ecuador’s embassy of its diplomatic status so that Assange could be detained.
“It is too early to say when or if Britain will revoke the Ecuadorean embassy’s diplomatic status,” a Foreign Office spokesman said before Ecuador’s decision was announced. “Giving asylum doesn’t fundamentally change anything.”
“We have a legal duty to extradite Mr Assange. There is a law that says we have to extradite him to Sweden. We are going to have to fulfill that law,” the spokesman said.
The Ecuadoran government bristled at Britain’s warning.
Its foreign minister said Britain was threatening Ecuador with a “hostile and intolerable act,” and accused London of blackmail.
Britain’s threat to withdraw diplomatic status from the Ecuadoran embassy drew criticism from some former diplomats, who said it could lead to similar moves against British embassies.
“I think the Foreign Office have slightly overreached themselves here,” former British ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, told the BBC. “If we live in a world where governments can arbitrarily revoke immunity and go into embassies, then the life of our diplomats and their ability to conduct normal business in places like Moscow, where I was, and North Korea becomes close to impossible.”
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson also warned against any attempt to enter Ecuador’s embassy and arrest his colleague.
“I am delighted that Ecuador has decided to offer asylum to Julian Assange, and did not bow to the intimidation and bullying by the UK,” Hrafnsson said in a telephone interview from Iceland.
“Hopefully, we will see the decision resolved in a civilized manner,” he added. “I hope that the UK authorities are sensible enough not to enter the embassy without permission, which would risk upsetting diplomatic relations all over the world.”
Hrafnsson said he had not yet spoken to Assange, but planned to call him soon.
“Considering the situation, he’s been holding up well,” he said. “Julian is used to living in difficult circumstances and he has had access to a computer in the embassy, so he has been able to carry on working.”