WikiLeaks founder has been granted asylum by Ecuador, but there are logistical issues involved in avoiding arrest.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that the United Kingdom will not allow Julian Assange safe passage out of the country, but his lawyer has said that prosecutors from Sweden, where he faces questioning in a sexual assault case, should travel to London to conduct their work.
Hague said on Thursday that 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 have filed complaints against Assange for sexual assault.
Assange fears Sweden could 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 however denied charges that it was pressurising Britain to seize Assange.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, “It is an issue among the countries involved and we are not planning to interject ourselves.”
The EU has also distanced itself from the furore with its foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton saying on Thursday that this was “a bilateral issue between the UK and Ecuador”.
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 rejects accusation
The Ecuador government earlier on Thursday granted political asylum to Assange after Britain, on Wednesday, issued a warning to Ecuador that it could raid its London embassy where Assange has been taking refuge since mid-June.
Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s foreign minister, made the announcement during a press conference in Quito on Thursday.
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“The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange,” Patino said.
He said that Ecuador found that Assange faces a real threat of political persecution including the threat of extradition to the United States, where Patino said the Australian would not get a fair trial and could face the death penalty.
However, Sweden on Thursday rejected Ecuador’s claim that Wikileaks founder Julian 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,” 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.”
The UK’s foreign office said that the British government remained “committed to a negotiated solution” that would allow UK authorities to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces questioning in a sexual assault case.
“We are disappointed by the statement from Ecuador’s Foreign Minister 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 shall carry out that obligation,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said.
“The UK has a legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offences and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said earlier.
Britain’s foreign office issued the ultimatum to Ecuador on Wednesday which has erupted into a diplomatic spat.
“Under British law we can give them a week’s notice before entering the premises and the embassy will no longer have diplomatic protection,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said on Wednesday.
“But that decision has not yet been taken. We are not going to do this overnight. We want to stress that we want a diplomatically agreeable solution.”
Ecuador foreign minister, Patino said in a statement after a meeting with President Rafael Correa held after the FO had issued its warning, “We want to be very clear, we’re not a British colony. The colonial times are over.”
“The move announced in the official British statement, if it happens, would be interpreted by Ecuador as an unfriendly, hostile and intolerable act, as well as an attack on our sovereignty, which would force us to respond in the strongest diplomatic way.
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.
Even though he has been granted asylum, Assange has little chance of leaving the Ecuadorean embassy in London without being arrested.