In the two months since Julian Assange ducked into Ecuador’s London embassy to seek political asylum, President Rafael Correa has been consistently deferential to Britain while insisting on his right to protect what he sees as a free speech advocate facing persecution.
Asked earlier this week if he felt solidarity with the WikiLeaks founder, Ecuador’s leftist president told a TV interviewer “of course, but we also feel solidarity for England and for English and international law.”
The decision on Assange’s petition, which his government said it would announce Thursday, would come only after careful scrutiny of the law and consultations with the governments involved, Correa insisted. And after London’s Olympics fest was over.
On Wednesday, the cordiality ended.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino accused Britain of threatening to “assault our embassy” if Assange was not handed over.
A storming of Ecuador’s embassy would be interpreted as “hostile and intolerable and, as well, an attempt on our sovereignty which would oblige us to respond with the greatest diplomatic force,” he said.
London had warned Ecuador in writing earlier in the day that a 1987 British law permits it to revoke the diplomatic status of a building if the foreign power occupying it “ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post.” Its Foreign Office said later in statement that it is Britain’s “obligation to extradite Mr. Assange.”
Seeking to avoid extradition
The former Australian hacker, who incensed U.S. government officials by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables and Iraq and Afghan war dispatches in 2010, took refuge in the embassy on June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden. He faces questioning there for alleged sexual misconduct and had exhausted all appeals after a 17-month legal battle.
As news broke of the British warning on Wednesday, police were seen reinforcing Scotland Yard’s presence at the embassy, which occupies an apartment in a district near the Harrods department store.
A small group of Assange supporters later gathered outside overnight and into the morning. The atmosphere was largely peaceful, although police briefly scuffled with a handful of people who refused to be moved, resulting in three arrests.
There was no sign police might try to enter the embassy.
In statement, WikiLeaks accused Britain of trying to bully Ecuador into denying Assange asylum.
“A threat of this nature is a hostile and extreme act, which is not proportionate to the circumstances, and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum seekers worldwide,” it said.
As Thursday dawned in London, there was no sign police might try to enter the embassy.
British officials have vowed not to grant Assange safe passage out of their country. They say they will arrest him the moment he steps foot outside the embassy.
But they had not publicly suggested they might strip the embassy of its diplomatic inviolability.
The Associated Press found no record of that law ever being used to justify forcible entry into an embassy.
Asked by the AP about Patino’s characterization of Britain’s warning, the Foreign Office said in an email that the letter “was not a threat” and was intended to clarify “all aspects of British law that Ecuador should be aware of.”
The Foreign Office insisted it was “still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution.”
Patino said the missive was delivered to his ministry in writing and verbally to its ambassador in London on Wednesday. The Foreign Office statement did not elaborate on Britain’s intentions if Assange were to be granted asylum by Ecuador.
Assange says the Swedish charges against him are trumped up, and his supporters say they believe the U.S. has secretly indicted him and would extradite him from Sweden.
Correa has said Assange could face the death penalty in the U.S. and for that reason he considers the asylum request a question of political persecution.
A U.S. and European-trained economist who won the presidency in November 2006 in his first bid for elected office, Correa has called Assange a beacon of free speech but has used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition media at home.
WikiLeaks has strengthened him politically against the U.S., whose influence he has sought to diminish in Latin America as he deepens commercial ties with countries including China, which now buys most of Ecuador’s oil, and pushes a populist agenda.
One cable published by WikiLeaks prompted Correa to expel a U.S. ambassador in 2010 for alleging a former Ecuadorean police chief was corrupt and suggesting Correa had looked the other way.
Doubts Britain would enter embassy
Analysts in Ecuador expressed doubts Wednesday that Britain would raid the embassy.
Professor Julio Echeverria of Quito’s FLACSO university said Britain “has a long establish tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions.”
A former Ecuadorean ambassador to London, Mauricio Gandara, said he believed that if asylum were granted “Mr. Assange could be in the embassy for a long time.”