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Inside Story Americas
The curious case of Julian Assange
Ecuador has granted the Wikileaks founder asylum but will the UK grant him safe passage out of the country?
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2012 13:59

Ecuador has granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, and said that the UK must grant him safe passage out of the country in accordance with international convention.

"They [Sweden] have had a year-and-a-half to interview Assange and they have refused to do it. Why? Because they are pursuing other goals. Namely to get him to Sweden for which there is no legitimate reason unless they have something else in mind. If there was any doubt in anyone's mind that this case was [a] completely political case – just the fact that the UK took this unprecedented step of threatening to invade another country's embassy, which I can't remember in the last 70 years a democratic government doing that, that shows that this is not about an ordinary criminal case because Assange is not even charged with a crime. What is the emergency here? Is he a terrorist? Is he dangerous?"

- Mark Weisbrot, a Latin America policy expert

It has been nearly two months since Julian Assange entered Ecuador's embassy in London in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden. And on Thursday, Ricardo Patino, the South American nation's foreign minister, announced that it was granting him asylum.

"[The Ecuadorean government] - loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek protection in its territory or in its diplomatic buildings - has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange," Patino announced.

"We believe that there are indications that allow us to presume a risk of political persecution, or that this persecution could occur if opportune and necessary measures aren't taken to avoid them."

Forty-one-year-old Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning regarding allegations of sexual assault. But he says he fears Sweden would extradite him to the US, where authorities are keen to prosecute him on charges related to the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified US diplomatic cables on his website, Wikileaks.

His supporters doubt he will be treated fairly, and fear he could face the death penalty.

The US state department had this to say: "We were in a situation where he was not headed to the US, he was headed elsewhere. So I'm not going to get into all the legal ins and outs about what may or may not have been in his future before he chose to take refuge in the Ecuadoran mission. With regard to the charge that the US was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely."

Assange has repeatedly offered to be questioned by Swedish authorities in London but that option has been declined.

Speaking to the Reuters news agency, the lawyer representing the two Swedish women who made the sexual assault allegations against Assange called Ecuador's move an "abuse of the asylum instrument".

William Hague, the British foreign minister, has also weighed in with a response on how the UK views the matter, saying: "We will continue to work with them [Ecuador] to find a diplomatic solution. But they need to be aware of our laws, in particular our extradition law, in particular that we will not grant safe passage to someone granted asylum under these circumstances, and in particular the full legal context in this country - all the tools available to a government of the United Kingdom. It's important that they make their decisions fully aware of the full legal context."

So what happens to Assange now? What was behind Ecuador's decision to grant him asylum and will he be allowed to leave the UK?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, speaks to guests: Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Charles Rose, a specialist in international law and a professor at Stetson University College of Law.

"Many people have seen this as ironic that [Rafael] Correa, [Ecuador's president], is standing up for freedom of expression. What is for sure is Assange has been very close to Correa. In Latin America and especially Ecuador there is a history of political journalism which is very different from impartial journalism in the US [where the] media are often political actors. [Correa's] taken some very strong actions against journalists. This is something that is affecting journalists, local media.

Irene Caselli, the freelance reporter based in Ecuador who broke the story


FACTS ABOUT WIKILEAKS:

  • Assange founded the whistleblower website Wikileaks in 2006  
  • Wikileaks has published US military and diplomatic secrets  
  • Wikileaks published hundreds of thousands of classified US cables  
  • Leaked embassy cables revealed the backroom dealings of US diplomats  
  • Bradley Manning, a US soldier, is still on trial for allegedly leaking documents
  • The US rejects accusations that it was "intent on persecuting" Assange

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