- Associated Press - Thursday, August 16, 2012

LONDON — He has won asylum in Ecuador, but Julian Assange is no closer to getting there.

The decision by the South American nation to identify the WikiLeaks founder as a refugee is a symbolic boost for the embattled former 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 Mr. Assange safe passage out of the country, the case has dragged 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; Mr. Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino (right) announces at a news conference in Quito, Ecuador, on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012, that his country would grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino (right) announces at a news conference in ... more >

Interpol, the Lyon, France-based international police agency, issued a statement late Thursday saying Mr. Assange remains on the equivalent of its most-wanted list, the Ecuadorian decision notwithstanding.

The convoluted saga took its latest twist Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted asylum to Mr. Assange, who has been holed up inside the nation’s embassy since June 19. He said Ecuador was taking action because Mr. Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.

In a message posted to its Twitter account, WikiLeaks said Mr. Assange would make a public statement outside Ecuador’s embassy Sunday afternoon — potentially offering British police the chance to arrest him.

Mr. Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the U.S., Britain and Sweden that Mr. Assange would not be extradited to the U.S., but was rebuffed by all three. If he 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,” Mr. Patino said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “with regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely.”

Significantly, Ecuador did not grant political but rather diplomatic asylum to Mr. Assange.
Robert Sloane, international law professor at Boston University, said that diplomatic asylum keeps the door open to political negotiations.

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage to Latin America. “There is no legal basis for us to do so,” he said.

He said Mr. Assange was wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of “serious sexual offenses” and that the extradition had nothing to do with the work of WikiLeaks or with the U.S.

Mr. Hague also insisted that Britain did not recognize the concept of diplomatic asylum, which he said was not a universal means of granting refuge.

In a mark of its anger over the asylum ruling, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Ecuador’s ambassador to complain about the decision. The country’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said in a message posted on Twitter that “our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and every one. We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary.”

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