The decision by the South American nation to identify the WikiLeaks founder as a refugee is a symbolic boost for the embattled ex-hacker. But legal experts say that does little to help him avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations.
Instead, with British officials asserting they won’t grant Assange safe passage out of the country, the case has done much to drag the two nations into an international faceoff.
“We’re at something of an impasse,” lawyer Rebecca Niblock said. “It’s not a question of law anymore. It’s a question of politics and diplomacy.”
The silver-haired Australian shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets _ including a quarter million U.S. Embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats. Amid the ferment, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault; Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.
Interpol, the Lyon, France-based international police agency, issued a statement late Thursday saying Assange remains on the equivalent of its most-wanted list, the Ecuadorian decision notwithstanding.
The convoluted saga took its latest twist on Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted asylum to Assange, who has been holed up inside the small, coastal nation’s embassy since June 19. He said Ecuador was taking action because Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.
That was a nod to the fears expressed by Assange and others that the Swedish sex case is merely the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States _ something disputed by both Swedish authorities and the women involved.
In a message posted to its Twitter account, WikiLeaks said Assange would make a public statement outside Ecuador’s embassy on Sunday afternoon _ potentially offering British police the chance to arrest him. The secret-spilling website did not immediately respond to attempts to contact it to provide additional details.
Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but was rebuffed by all three. If Assange were extradited to the U.S. “he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it’s not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty,” Patino said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she did not accept Assange’s claim, or Ecuador’s acceptance of it, that he could potentially face persecution in the United States. “With regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely,” she said Thursday.
Under Ecuador’s asylum offer, Assange is not permitted to make political statements or grant interviews of a political nature, restrictions that are standard for anyone granted asylum, said an Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
“Political asylum would imply that Great Britain is persecuting him or threatens to persecute him,” said Robert Sloane, international law professor at Boston University. By granting diplomatic asylum, Ecuador is keeping the door open to political negotiations. Sloane said that the type of asylum does not confer any diplomatic status or special privileges on Assange.
Ecuador’s decision was warmly received by the 41-year-old Assange, who watched the foreign minister announce it from Quito in a live televised news conference. In a statement he praised Ecuador’s “courage.”