Ecuador’s attorney general said that the British government has repeatedly guaranteed that WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange will not be extradited by the U.K. to face the death penalty abroad, potentially alleviating a major concern for the fugitive, self-exiled Australian native.
British Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor, Boris Johnson, made similar promises in letters sent to Ecuador earlier this year, Iñigo Salvador Crespo said Wednesday, Spanish media reported.
Both commitments were forwarded in August to Mr. Assange, a longtime resident of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and Baltasar Garzón, an attorney for WikiLeaks, said Mr. Crespo, according to Agencia EFE, a Spanish-language news agency.
Representatives for neither the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office nor Mr. Assange immediately returned messages seeking comment.
The Obama administration announced a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks following the website’s publication of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010, and President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, previously called arresting its publisher a “priority.”
Mr. Assange, 47, has not been publicly charged with any criminal counts by U.S. prosecutors. He remains the subject of an active British arrest warrant, however, and he has previously raised fears about the possibility of being indicted while in custody and accordingly extradited.
The Justice Department has charged individuals accused of leaking to WikiLeaks with crimes including espionage, a capital offense in certain cases, and Mr. Assange’s lawyer have argued that the risks being executed if put on trial in the U.S.
Mr. Assange was granted asylum within weeks of seeking refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in 2012, and he has remained in the diplomatic compound for over six years in light of the outstanding British warrant and the related risk of extradition and execution.
Swedish prosecutors were investigating Mr. Assange over allegations of sexual assault when he entered the embassy, and British authorities subsequently accused him of violating his bail conditions and issued a warrant for his arrest. Sweden dropped the rape probe in 2017, but a British judge upheld the arrest warrant earlier this year.
“On March 7, 2018, Secretary of State Boris Johnson declared that Britain will not extradite Mr. Assange to a third country where he can be sentenced with the death penalty,” Ecuador’s attorney general said Wednesday, citing an official notice sent to the WikiLeaks chief, according to the EFE report.
Mr. Hunt reiterated the pledge on Aug. 10, the report said.
WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning was convicted in 2013 of espionage and other crimes related to leaking material to Mr. Assange’s website, including classified State and Defense Department documents published in 2010, and she ultimately served seven years behind bars prior to having most of a 35-year sentence commuted by former President Barack Obama.
Joshua Schulte, a former CIA computer engineer, was similarly charged in June in connection with leaking national defense intelligence to an outlet his attorney previously identified as WikiLeaks. More recently he was charged with a superseding indictment Wednesday in connection with allegedly leaking additional material while awaiting trial for espionage.
Carlos Poveda, an attorney for Mr. Assange, said last month that his client would consider surrendering to British authorities if it precluded the possibility of a U.S. extradition.
“In British justice, he could even be sentenced to three to six months’ imprisonment,” said Mr. Poveda, AFP reported. “But what is being requested from the legal team is that there is a necessary assurance that after that sentence he will not be extradited to the United States.”