According to The New York Times, Ecuador forcefully rejected pressure from Britain and announced Thursday that it was granting political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been holed up for two months in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London trying to avoid extradition to Sweden.
Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patiño made the declaration that Mr Assange had been given “diplomatic asylum” at a press conference in the capital, Quito.
“The government of Ecuador, faithful to its tradition of protecting those who seek refuge in its territory or in its diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange,” he said, reading from a government communiqué. He added, “There are indications to presume that there could be political persecution,” and that Mr. Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States and could face the death penalty there.
“We believe that his fears are legitimate and there are the threats that he could face political persecution. We trust that that the UK will offer as soon as possible the guarantee for the safe passage of asylum for Mr Assange and they will respect those international agreements they have signed in the past.”
The decision announced by Ecuador, citing the possibility that Mr. Assange could face “political persecution” or be sent to the United States to face the death penalty, escalated the unusually sharp strains between Ecuador and Britain, and drew an angry rebuttal from Sweden.
The saga has already been going on for almost exactly two years, since Mr Assange was accused of raping and sexually assaulting two women on a visit to Sweden where he was promoting his whistle-blowing website, writes The Telegraph.
Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 but fought extradition to Sweden all the way to the Supreme Court, fearing it was a pretext for him to be sent to the US where the authorities were incensed by his release of thousands of confidential diplomatic cables.
Assange has been holed up inside Ecuador’s embassy in central London for eight weeks since he lost a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden.
However, William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said that Assange would not be allowed to fly to his newly adopted country and must instead answer rape allegations in Sweden.
Hague said: “We are disappointed by the statement by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister today that Ecuador has offered political asylum to Julian Assange. Under our law, with Mr Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We must carry out that obligation and of course we fully intend to do so.
“We will not allow Mr Assange safe passage out of the UK, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so. It is important to understand that this is not about Mr Assange’s activities at Wikileaks or the attitude of the United States of America. He is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offences,” Hague said.
Britain has said it could use a little-known piece of legislation from 1987, introduced in the wake of the shooting of a British police officer outside the Libyan embassy in London, to remove the Ecuador embassy’s diplomatic status, reports Reuters.
WikiLeaks said Assange would give a live statement in front of the Ecuadorian embassy on Sunday, although it was unclear whether he would risk arrest by venturing out of the building or would simply appear at a window or by a video-link.
In a statement, WikiLeaks condemned the “menacing show of force” by police and said any transgression against the “sanctity” of the embassy would be a “shameful act”.
Julian Assange said: “I am grateful to the Ecuadorean people, President Rafael Correa and his government. It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation.
“While today is a historic victory, our struggles have just begun. The unprecedented US investigation against WikiLeaks must be stopped.”
“The reaction he has is that he wants to underline that this (asylum) is a measure that is aimed at the U.S. and not against Sweden,” said Per E Samuelsson, one of Assange’s lawyers.
“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,” he said.