Julian Assange, the founder of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, has been staying at the Ecuadorian embassy to the United Kingdom in London since June 19. He fled to the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where authorities are seeking him for questioning over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women.
Ecuador announced that it has accepted Assange's request for political asylum on August 16. Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian president, had earlier said that key to the process was a review of the extradition process to Sweden, particularly the possibility that Assange may be extradited again from there to the United States.
He has said that the mere possibility that Assange could face capital punishment in the US, based on possible charges of leaking government secrets, could be reason enough for his government to grant the activist's asylum request.
Assange has not yet been formally charged with any crimes in either Sweden or the United States.
Even though Ecuador has offered the WikiLeaks chief asylum, however, there are logistical difficulties involved in him actually reaching the South American country.
Even though Assange has the right to political asylum, police in London would be within their rights to arrest him as soon as he left the Ecuadorian embassy’s premises and before he reached a diplomatic vehicle.
Once in a diplomatic vehicle, the British police would be entitled under British and international law to stop the vehicle, but they are not authorised to search it.
Even if he were able to make it to the vehicle, the threat of arrest would return when he would have to alight it so that he could board an aircraft bound for Ecuador.
Some are pointing to the case of Yvonne Fletcher in 1984 as a possible precedent for this situation. Fletcher, a British police officer, was shot and killed during a protest outside the Libyan embassy. The incident led to a 10-day siege of the Libyan embassy by police, which ended with a negotiated settlement whereby all those in the embassy were allowed safe passage to the airport, from whence they left the country.
There has been some speculation that after deciding to grant him asylum, Ecuador could designate Assange a diplomat - possibly as a UN representative - in a bid to allow him to enjoy diplomatic immunity.
The move would not necessarily save Assange from arrest, however. The Metropolitan Police have arrested several diplomats in the past, and, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, "immunity is dependent on rank, and ranges from immunity from criminal and civil and administrative jurisdiction to immunity for official acts only".
Moreover, the British Foreign Office would have to have accepted the appointment of Assange as fulfilling "a diplomatic function", according to the CPS.
Embassies are entitled to the use of the so-called "diplomatic bag" to transport documents and other goods in and out of their premises. These bags are deemed "inviolable" under Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, and, if deemed to be clearly marked as such, cannot be "opened or detained".
While normally used for transporting confidential documents, diplomatic bags have, over the years, been used to transport a number of unusual cargoes – including drugs, weapons and even, reportedly, human beings.
Could Assange be placed in a crate marked as "Diplomatic Correspondence" and transported directly on to an aircraft at the airport? It's possible, but given that the Vienna Convention decries that diplomatic bags "may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use", it is unclear if the UK authorities would respect the section deeming such a crate "inviolable".
|INDEFINITE STAY IN ECUADORIAN EMBASSY
The Ecuadorian government has previously stated that it is prepared to offer Assange indefinite leave to remain in their London embassy, under a provision that allows them to provide humanitarian protection.
Such a situation would mean that Assange would be confined to the premises of the embassy, as he has been for more than two months already, indefinitely, or until the circumstances around his case change.
It is unclear if even this course of action would succeed, however, as the UK’s Foreign Office has issued a statement reminding the Ecuadorian government that they could revoke the consular status of the premises at a week’s notice under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, allowing them to raid it to carry out Assange’s arrest.
Ecuador has responded to this threat as saying that any such action would be considered a violation of its sovereignty and a "hostile and intolerable act".