WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy for nearly two months, was caught up in a spreading diplomatic row Saturday as the ex-hacker prepared to face the world’s media.
As the Organization of American States called a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the diplomatic standoff sparked by Ecuador granting Assange asylum, the Australian national was preparing to deliver his first statement since March.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told AFP that he would not provide any details of how the appearance by Assange, scheduled for 1300 GMT Sunday, would take place amid the possibility that he could be arrested.
“I don’t have any details on how it is going to be carried out,” Hrafnsson said by phone on Saturday, adding that the little he knew could not be discussed “for security reasons”.
As fewer than ten police officers and a handful of Assange supporters stood outside the embassy on Saturday, a police spokesman said officers would act “in an appropriate manner” if faced with an appearance by Assange.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said that the embassy building’s common areas such as its stairwells were considered British territory. An appearance by Assange here could therefore lead to his arrest, raising speculation that he would speak from a balcony.
Ecuador on Thursday granted asylum to Assange — whose website enraged the United States by publishing a vast cache of confidential US government files.
The 41-year-old took refuge at Ecuador’s embassy in London on June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual misconduct.
Despite Ecuador providing a haven for Assange, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain was obliged under its own laws to extradite him to Sweden.
Assange’s statement on Sunday has therefore sparked questions.
WikiLeaks said on Twitter that he would speak in front of the embassy, though it did not specify whether this would involve leaving the premises and, if so, how he would do so without being arrested.
Under normal diplomatic procedures, embassies are considered the territory of the countries they represent and cannot be entered without permission.
Britain has angered Ecuador by suggesting it could invoke the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987, which it says allows it to revoke the diplomatic immunity of an embassy on British soil and go in to arrest Assange.
The Organization of American States meanwhile on Friday called a meeting of foreign ministers for Aug 24.
Twenty-three countries voted for the resolution proposed by Ecuador to convene the meeting at its Washington headquarters to discuss Quito’s standoff with Britain.
The vote was taken at emergency talks to discuss the Assange case.
The United States, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago voted against, five countries abstained, and three others were absent.
The US envoy to the OAS, Carmen Lomellin, said the meeting of foreign ministers “would be unhelpful and harmful to the OAS’ reputation as an institution.”
Elsewhere, Australia on Saturday confirmed that its diplomatic post in Washington had been preparing for Assange’s possible extradition to the US but played it down as “contingency planning”.
Trade Minister Craig Emerson said the Australian embassy in Washington had been “getting prepared for the possibility of an extradition” but stressed that there was nothing unusual in diplomats bracing for all eventualities.
“The embassy is doing its job, just to be in a position to advise the government if it believed that an extradition effort was imminent. There is no evidence of such an extradition effort,” Emerson told ABC television.
“All that was happening is that the post in Washington was doing some contingency planning in the event that such an eventuality arose.”
The remarks follow media reports Saturday that Australian diplomats believe Washington is targeting Assange for possible prosecution on charges including espionage and conspiracy relating to his WikiLeaks whistleblowing site.
“There is a dose of fantasy in all this,” said Chris Brown, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
“The chances of him being extradited to the US from Sweden are non-existent. If the Americans really want him, they would have asked us (Britain) for him,” he told AFP.
In 2010, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of US military documents on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic cables that deeply embarrassed Washington.
Supporters fear Assange could face the death penalty if he were to be sent to the United States and tried on espionage charges.