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LONDON (AP) - It was a warning meant to remind Ecuador that Britain’s patience has limits. But as the stalemate over Julian Assange settled in Friday, it appeared London’s veiled threat that it could storm Ecuador's embassy and drag Assange out has backfired _ drawing supporters to the mission where the WikiLeaks founder is holed up and prompting angry denunciations from Ecuador and elsewhere.
Experts and ex-diplomats say Britain's Foreign Office, which warned Ecuador of a little known law that would allow it to side-step usual diplomatic protocols, messed up by issuing a threat it couldn’t back up.
Britain’s warning was carried in a set of notes delivered to Ecuadorean diplomats Wednesday as they tried to negotiate an agreement over Assange, who has spent nearly two months holed up at the Latin American nation’s London mission in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he’s wanted over allegations of sexual assault.
The notes, published by Britain on Thursday, said ominously that keeping Assange at the embassy was incompatible with international law. They added: “You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. _ the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act _ which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the embassy.”
The Ecuadoreans were outraged by the notes, accusing Britain of threatening to assault their embassy and calling a crisis meeting of the Union of South American Nations. The ripples from the controversy continued to spread Friday, with Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying in a brief message posted to Twitter that the issue raised questions about diplomatic protections.
“If I tell you, `I’m not threatening you but I DO have a very large stick here,’ it’s a question of semantics,” he said.
Other diplomats and legal experts say British authorities should never have brought up the law.
Some lawyers have pointed out that the act itself notes that an embassy’s diplomatic status can only be revoked if the move is “permissible under international law” _ a high hurdle to jump given the age-old deference given to foreign embassy buildings.
Rebecca Niblock, an extradition lawyer, said it was tough to see how Britain could follow through on the threat to nab Assange from inside the embassy, while staying true to what she called “a fundamental premise of international law.”
Extradition expert Julian Knowles was a dissenting voice, saying that he believed the Brits could, and would, be able to revoke Ecuadorean embassy’s diplomatic status if Assange persisted in what Knowles described as “abuse of the rule of law.”
Knowles, who has been critical of Assange, said British officials could arrest the Australian once the diplomatic and media ferment faded.
“I think they’ll take the view that within a few days or weeks it will all blow over,” he said.
But most observers backed the sentiment expressed by Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, Tony Brenton, who told BBC radio that the Foreign Office had “slightly overreached themselves here.”
Lawyer Alex Carlile, told Sky News television that, in any case, “it sets a very dangerous precedent … that could rebound on Britain.”
“I fear the government roared rather like a mouse in this case, and would be best not to have made that threat,” he said.
Britain’s government seems to have toned down its rhetoric. Speaking to reporters Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that Britain would act within the law.
“We are committed to working with them amicably to resolve the matter,” he said. “There is no threat here to storm an embassy.”
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter
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