Ecuador set itself on a collision course with Britain and Sweden on Thursday by agreeing to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, with Britain insisting it will carry out its "obligation" to extradite Assange despite the decision.
AFP - Ecuador on Thursday granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, angering Britain, which insisted it would extradite him to Sweden for questioning in a sexual assault case.
Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino justified the move by saying that Sweden might one day send Assange to the United States, where his supporters fear he could face capital charges for publishing a trove of classified files.
"The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition of protecting those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange," Patino told a news conference.
'ASSANGE COULD BE LANGUISHING IN THE EMBASSY FOR YEARS'
The decision escalated a crisis that began on June 19, when the 41-year-old Australian took refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual misconduct.
Assange supporters outside the mission cheered the news, and the WikiLeaks founder thanked Ecuador for its "courageous" decision.
"While today is a historic victory, our struggles have just begun. The unprecedented US investigation against WikiLeaks must be stopped," he said.
Britain said it would carry out its "obligation" to extradite Assange despite Ecuador's decision, and Sweden summoned the Ecuadoran ambassador to explain Patino's charge that Assange might not be treated fairly.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Quito that the "harboring of alleged criminals, or frustrating the due legal process in a country, is not a permitted function."
In London, police beefed up their presence outside the embassy, near the famed Harrods department store, with around 30 officers and nine vans stationed around the building.
Washington meanwhile denied it was lobbying Britain to take Assange into custody.
"With regard to the charge that the US was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"It is an issue among the countries involved and we are not planning to interject ourselves."
The Organization of American States, which met in emergency session, said it would decide Friday whether to call a meeting of its foreign ministers. Britain has observer status in the OAS.
In Quito, meanwhile, about 50 activists protested on Thursday night at the British embassy to demand that Assange be given safe passage to Ecuador.
Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, diplomatic posts
are treated as the territory of the foreign nation. But in a letter to Ecuadorean officials, Britain cited a little-known law, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987, which it said would allow it to arrest Assange within the embassy premises. The law gives Britain the power to revoke the status of a diplomatic
mission if the state in question "ceases to use land for the purposes of its
mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post" – but only if such a move is "permissible under international law." In its letter, Britain adds, "We very much hope not to get to this point."
Ecuador has called a meeting of foreign ministers from the South American regional bloc UNASUR on Sunday.
"Nobody is going to scare us," Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said on his Twitter account, minutes before the decision was announced.
Patino said his government reached its decision after Britain, Sweden and the United States refused to provide guarantees that Assange would not be extradited to the United States.
In 2010, WikiLeaks obtained and published online an enormous cache of US military documents on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and diplomatic cables that deeply embarrassed the United States.
A US Army private, Bradley Manning, faces an American military court trial later this year for allegedly passing the classified material to WikiLeaks.
"If he were extradited to the United States, Mr Assange would not receive a fair trial," Patino alleged.
"It is not implausible that he would be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment and be condemned to life in prison or capital punishment."
Patino said Assange's imprisonment in Sweden "would open up a chain of events" that could result in his extradition to a third country.
"As a result, Ecuador feels his arguments mean his fears are genuine, that he could be the victim of political persecution because of his decisive defense of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press," he said.
Patino said that if Britain did not grant Assange safe passage out of the country, he would remain "under the protection of our embassy."
Spanish rights lawyer Baltasar Garzon, who is helping Assange's defense, raised the possibility of taking the matter before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Britain's Foreign Office, however, stood its ground.
"Under our law, with Mr Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Date created : 2012-08-16