BY ROMANO MULLIN
The government of Ecuador has granted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum. The decision was announced by the Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino in Quito on Thursday 16 August, a day after the UK threatened to strip the country’s embassy in London of diplomatic immunity and seize Assange. The WikiLeaks founder fled to the embassy on June 19 alleging that he was being persecuted by UK, US and Swedish authorities who are trying to extradite him to Stockholm to face charges of sexual assault.
In a lengthy statement Patino reasserted his shock at what Ecuador considered a ‘threat’ by the UK, and reiterated the country’s belief that if Assange was extradited to Sweden he would be at risk of a military or special trial in the US, possibly jeopardising his life. Patino also said that he hoped the “excellent relationship” between Ecuador and the UK could continue despite the diplomatic row.
The UK government expressed its disappointment at the decision and said it was ‘still determined’ to carry out the extradition. In a statement to the press the Foreign Office said that it remains: “committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act.” The Swedish authorities did not comment on the decision by Ecuador, but in a statement online said that: “As the…embassy…is on British soil, the case is still a matter for British authorities”. Although Assange has been granted asylum by Ecuador, should he leave the embassy he will once more be on British soil and be at risk of arrest.
The decision by the Ecuadorean government was greeted by cheers from Assange supporters who had massed in the street outside the embassy building. However the row is still in its early stages and Assange still faces a mass of charges in Sweden. His defence team have conceded that although “disrespectful” and “disturbing” sexual acts may have taken place, they in themselves did not constitute rape, and the extradition order is invalid because the acts themselves are not criminal under English law.
It remains unclear what actions the UK will take in its vow to fulfil its pledge to extradite Assange, but a number of commentators have pointed out that any breach or suspension of the Ecuadorian embassy’s diplomatic status could have dangerous consequences for British embassies worldwide.