Ecuador Grants Asylum to Assange, Defying Britain

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Ecuador forcefully rejected British pressure to announce Thursday that it was granting political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been holed up for two months in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London trying to avoid extradition to Sweden.

“The government of Ecuador, faithful to its tradition of protecting those who seek refuge in its territory or in its diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange,” said Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, reading from a government communiqué at a news conference in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito. He added, “There are indications to presume that there could be political persecution,” and that Mr. Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States and could face the death penalty there.

The move gives Mr. Assange with protection from British arrest, but only on Ecuadorean territory, leaving him vulnerable if he tries to head to an airport or train.

The decision added to the sharp strains between Ecuador and Britain. Mr. Patiño said he hoped Britain would permit Mr. Assange to leave the embassy for Ecuador. But at a news conference on Thursday in London, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, repeated the government’s stance that there was Britain was legally bound to to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over accusations that he sexually assaulted two women.

Just before the announcement of asylum, President Rafael Correa rejected British efforts to secure a handover, saying on his Twitter account: “No one is going to terrorize us!” The night before, Mr. Patiño said that the British authorities had threatened to force their way into the embassy, to which he responded: “We are not a British colony.”

The British Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the Ecuadorean announcement but remained committed to a negotiated outcome to the standoff. Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, rejected the suggestion that Sweden would be involved in any kind of persecution. “Our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone,” he wrote on Twitter. “ We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary.

Mr. Patiño’s news conference was broadcast live on British television and Mr. Assange watched the announcement as it happened, British news reports said. He told embassy staff members: “It is a significant victory for myself and my people. Things will probably get more stressful now.”

Outside the embassy, a small red brick apartment block behind Harrods department store in the upscale Knightsbridge neighborhood, a protester with a megaphone provided sporadic updates on the progress of the news conference in Quito. When it became clear that Mr. Assange had won asylum, the response was a muted joy. “It’s great news,” said a youth worker, 21, who gave his name only as James. “As long as Britain honors his right to asylum,” he added, outlining his hope that the British government would allow Mr. Assange to leave the country without arresting him. If that did not happen, he said, gesturing to the protesters around him, “this will only get bigger.” Like many of the protesters, the youth worker said he believed that the accusations of sexual abuse and rape against Mr. Assage were part of a conspiracy to silence WikiLeaks. “Textbook character assassination,” he said.

Speculation immediately turned to whether, and how, Mr. Assange might seek to escape.

Mr. Patiño said his government had made its decision after the authorities in Britain, Sweden and the United States refused to give guarantees that, if Mr. Assange were extradited to Sweden, he would not then be sent on to the United States to face other charges.

Those close to Mr. Assange have said that he fears ending up in the United States, which could bring charges over Wikileaks’s release in 2010 of thousands of secret documents and diplomatic cables relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to American relations with other governments.

An Ecuadorean official said late Wednesday that the British government had made it clear that it would not allow Mr. Assange to leave the country to travel to Ecuador, so even with a grant of asylum or similar protection, he would probably remain stuck in the embassy.

Mr. Assange arrived at the embassy on June 19, seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden. Jérémie Zimmerman, a friend who has spoken with him recently, said Mr. Assange had found the narrowing of his horizons hard. “It is quite difficult not to be able to get out in the street for all this time,” he said. “He lived for so many years free, without even a home to limit him. And now he is isolated.”

Some analysts said that Ecuador had entered a high-stakes game on Mr. Assange’s behalf. Mauricio Gándara, a former ambassador for Ecuador in London warned that by granting him asylum, Ecuador risked jeapordizing trade ties with England and other European Union countries. In 2011 about 28 percent of Ecuador’s nonpetroleum exports went to the European Union, according to government data. Nonpetroleum exports to the United Kingdom were $139 million last year.

“What Ecuador is doing is a very delicate thing,” Mr. Gándara said. “Ecuador is risking its economic interests for this adventure of defending Mr. Assange.”

He said that he was not aware of any previous dispute of similar magnitude between the two countries.

Mr. Assange arrived at the embassy on June 19, seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden. Jérémie Zimmerman, a friend who has spoken with him recently, said Mr. Assange had found the narrowing of his horizons hard. “It is quite difficult not to be able to get out in the street for all this time,” he said. “He lived for so many years free, without even a home to limit him. And now he is isolated.”

The WikiLeaks founder sleeps on an air mattress in a small office that has been converted to a bedroom, according to accounts of those who have visited him. He has access to a computer and continues to oversee WikiLeaks, his lieutenants have said. Reporters outside the building have seen food being delivered from nearby restaurants.

His presence is a challenge for employees of the embassy. One British government official, citing a conversation with a member of the embassy staff, said that the situation was surreal.

A diplomat familiar with Mr. Assange’s situation said that he spent his time in a back room, which gets no direct sunlight. Several weeks ago he had a bad cold and appeared depressed, the source said.

“He can’t get outside to see the sun,” his mother, Christine Assange, said in a recent interview conducted in Quito for BBC Mundo, a BBC Web site. “I’m worried about his health, as I would be for anybody who is having to stay indoors and not get exercise and have sunlight.”

She said some of Mr. Assange’s friends have encouraged him to put on music and dance as a way of getting physical activity and that they had also brought sunlamps.”

Although WikiLeaks has shrunk substantially during the 20 months of Mr. Assange’s legal battle in Britain, losing many of its most skilled computer experts along with several of Mr. Assange’s closest associates in building the organization, it has continued to issue statements about his plight.

On Thursday, ahead of the Ecuadorean decision, it issued a new, unsigned statement describing Britain’s warning that it might suspend the embassy’s immunity as part of an action to arrest Mr. Assange as a “resort to intimidation” and a breach of the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic relations between states.

“We remind the public that these extraordinary actions are being taken to detain a man who has not been charged with any crime in any country,” the statement said. It added: “We further urge the U.K. government to show restraint, and to consider the dire ramifications of any violation of the elementary norms of international law.”

It struck many as odd that Mr. Assange, who shot to fame as a fighter for media freedom, chose Ecuador as a potential refuge. Mr. Correa has presided over a crackdown on journalists there.

But when Mr. Assange arrived at the embassy, he issued a statement saying that Mr. Correa had invited him to seek asylum in Ecuador during an interview for Mr. Assange’s TV show on Russia Today, an English-language cable channel financed by the government of Vladimir V. Putin.

William Neuman reported from Caracas, and Maggy Ayala from Quito, Ecuador. John F. Burns, Ravi Somaiya and Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London; and Christine Anderson from Stockholm.

Source: The New York Times

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