Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after the UK refused to grant him the freedom to leave the country amid a diplomatic stalemate between the two countries over his extradition.
The UK, which seeks to extradite Assange to Sweden where he is accused of sex crimes, has warned that the row with Ecuador over granting the WikiLeaks founder political asylum could last for months or even years.
At a press conference on Friday, Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president, spoke for the first time about Quito's decision to grant Assange asylum a day earlier.
"We've given diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange after exhausting all means," he said. "For what? To guarantee that he is not extradited to a third country, which could put his life in danger."
Referring to the allegations of sexual misconduct, Correa said, "the crimes that are being investigated in Sweden, the alleged sexual crimes, they wouldn't be crimes here. It's a consensual relationship of various months."
Prior to the press confence, the Ecuadorian president issued a defiant response on Twitter following a suggestion by London that it would arrest Assange inside the embassy as police surrounded the building.
"Nobody is going to scare us," Correa said.
He added that Assange would remain in Quito's embassy in London as long as Britain refuses to give him safe passage out of the country.
"The problem is that they aren't going to give him the safe conduct," Correa said in a radio interview, adding that "Mr Assange can stay indefinitely in our embassy".
'No safe passage'
Meanwhile, a UK foreign office spokesman said that Britain was "committed to working with the Ecuadorans to solve this matter amicably".
|President Rafael Correa said Assange would remain in Quito embassy [Reuters]
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would not grant Assange safe passage because "there is no legal basis for us to do so" and that he was wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of "serious sexual offenses".
He said the extradition had nothing to do with the work of WikiLeaks or with a desire by US authorities to try him for publishing diplomatic secrets, but rather a case in which two Swedish women had filed complaints against Assange for sexual assault.
Assange fears Sweden can send him on to the US, where he believes authorities want to punish him for publishing thousands of secret US diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks in 2010 in a major embarrassment for the US. The US has denied charges that it was pressurising Britain to seize Assange.
The US State Department said the struggle over Assange's status was a matter between Ecuador, Britain and Sweden, and the United States had no plans to interject itself in the dispute.
Russia on Friday warned Britain against violating fundamental diplomatic principles after UK authorities suggested it could arrest Assange inside Ecuador's embassy.
"What is happening gives grounds to contemplate the observance of the spirit and the letter of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and in particular the Article 22 spelling out the inviolability of diplomatic premises," the Russian foreign ministry said.
Under normal diplomatic procedures, embassies are considered the territory of the countries they represent and cannot be entered without permission.
Per E Samuelsson, one of the lawyers representing Assange, called on Swedish Prosecutor Marianne Ny to travel to London to interrogate Assange.
"This means that he has been granted political asylum and that means that an arrest warrant from Sweden can no longer be affected by Great Britain and in it's turn it means that the Swedish prosecutor, in my opinion, must change her attitude and immediately go to London and interrogate Julian Assange, at the embassy of Ecuador..."
Samuelsson said he had requested the prosecutor to do so two weeks ago but she declined to do that.
Sweden also rejected Ecuador’s claim that Assange would not get a fair trial as a reason for granting him political asylum, and summoned Quito’s envoy to explain.
“Our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone. We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary,” Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his Twitter account.
Swedish foreign ministry spokesman Anders Joerle, however, said, “The accusations that [the Ecuadoran foreign ministry] has formulated are serious and it is unacceptable that Ecuador would want to halt the Swedish judicial process and European judicial cooperation.”
Assange, an Australian citizen, has been in the Ecuadorian embassy for eight weeks since losing a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden.
Swedish prosecutors have not yet charged Assange, but they have moved forward with their investigations and they believe they have a case to take to trial.