Assange faces arrest if he leaves Ecuador embassy
LONDON (AP) — Julian Assange spent a second night in Ecuador's London embassy as the South American nation's maverick president said Wednesday that his nation was seriously and responsibly weighing the secret-spilling activist's political asylum request.
"We will take the time that's needed because this is a very serious matter," President Rafael Correa said in televised interview with Venezuela's Telesur network in Rio de Janeiro..
Correa said Assange made it clear in his letter requesting asylum that "he wants to continue his mission in a country, and I cite it textually because the sentence impressed me a lot, that he wants to continue his mission of free expression without limits, to reveal the truth, in a place of peace dedicated to truth and justice."
In London, British police waited outside the embassy a few doors down from the Harrods department story poised to arrest the 40-year-old Australian should he try to leave.
Assange entered the building Tuesday in a dramatic bid to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning about alleged sex crimes. His supporters say he fears charges in the United States for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents.
But some legal experts say the asylum bid is a desperate and likely futile move.
"He knows he's reached the end of the road in the U.K. He knows he's going to be extradited to Sweden," said Alex Carlile, a senior British lawyer with expertise in such matters. "Basically, he has nowhere to go."
British police say Assange has violated the terms of his bail, which include an overnight curfew, and is subject to arrest. But British officials concede he is beyond their grasp as long as he remains in the embassy, which is considered Ecuadorean territory.
The U.K. Foreign Office said British officials would "work with the Ecuadorean authorities to resolve this situation as soon as possible." Ecuadorean ambassador Anna Alban said she had had "cordial and constructive" discussions with British officials on Wednesday.
Correa was asked in the Telesur interview in Rio, where he was attending an environmental summit, if he wasn't worried about hurting relations with Britain and responded with a characteristic dig at the United States.
"If relations with England are affected by an exile request, relations with the United States of America will be super affected because all the corrupt from Ecuador" have sought asylum there, Correa said, mention bankers and journalists.
Correa has praised Wikileaks for exposing U.S. secrets and thus strengthening him politically against a government 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.
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.
He told the interviewer he didn't know Assange personally but said there was "empathy" when Assange interviewed him last month during the Russian Television program he regularly hosts.
Correa mentioned Wednesday that Ecuador's constitution prohibits the death penalty, an apparent allusion to fears by some of Assange's supporters that he could face it in the United States if not granted asylum.
Carlile the British lawyer, said even if Ecuador grants him asylum, Assange could find leaving Britain all but impossible.
"It's inconceivable that the U.K. government would give him safe passage" to an airport, Carlile said. "Even if he was in a diplomatic vehicle driving out the back door, that vehicle would be stopped and he would be extracted from it by the Metropolitan Police."
On Wednesday police officers were stationed outside the Edwardian apartment block in the tony Knightsbridge district that houses the embassy. They were joined by a small group of protesters waving "Free Assange" placards.
Gavin Macfadyen of the Center for Investigative Journalism at London's City University emerged from the embassy to say that Assange was meeting with his lawyers and was "in very good humor."
Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 at Sweden's request. Since then he has been on bail and fighting extradition to the Scandinavian country, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual assaults on two women in August 2010.
He denies the allegations and says the case against him is politically motivated. He also claims extradition could be a first step in efforts to remove him to the United States, where he claims to have been secretly indicted over his website's disclosure of 250,000 State Department cables. The leaks of the secret diplomatic exchanges deeply angered the U.S. government.
A U.S. soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, has been charged with aiding the enemy by passing the secret files to WikiLeaks and is awaiting trial.
Some found Ecuador a strange choice of refuge for a free-speech advocate. Correa's government has been assailed by human rights and press freedom activists for using Ecuador's criminal libel law in sympathetic courts against journalists, including from the country's biggest newspaper, El Universo.
A new Ecuadorean law also restricts media ownership and Correa's government is seeking to restrict private ownership of TV and radio stations to one-third of those licensed.
Asked about the case at a Geneva press conference, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said Assange was not being victimized.
"Getting too enamored with the idea that Julian Assange is a whistleblower missed the reality that confidentiality on the part of governments is not all bad," she said. "In many cases it is used to protect people and that must be balanced along with the preference for free flow of information."
Assange had all but run out of legal options in Britain, where the Supreme Court last week affirmed an earlier decision that he should be sent to Sweden. He could still apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a move his lawyers have said they are considering.
The asylum bid took many Assange supporters by surprise — including some of those who put up 200,000 pounds ($315,000) to guarantee his bail. Assange's high-profile guarantors include "Fahrenheit 911" director Michael Moore, human rights activist Jemima Khan and British filmmaker Ken Loach. They could lose their money if Assange absconds, though the final decision will be up to a judge.
Vaughan Smith, a former journalist who let Assange stay at his rural English home for more than a year as part of his bail terms, said the news "came as surprise."
Smith said he stood to lose his 20,000-pound ($31,000) surety, but defended Assange nonetheless.
"This is money my family needs," Smith said. "But my family don't believe they are facing life imprisonment or death.
"I am convinced (Assange) genuinely believes he will be sent to America and will face something terrible there."
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless