(Corrects story from June 20 to say Assange faces questioning, not trial, in Sweden.)
Julian Assange sought asylum in Ecuador’s Embassy in London yesterday to avoid what he says are U.S. efforts to punish him for releasing diplomatic secrets through his WikiLeaks website.
Ecuador is studying the request and is in contact with the U.K. government, the Andean country’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters in a brief statement in Quito. Assange entered the embassy in the Knightsbridge area of London after exhausting options in U.K. courts to avert extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning on allegations of rape and sexual molestation.
The move threatens to widen the breach between Ecuador, a member of the Venezuelan-led group of nations known as ALBA, and the U.S., just as Ecuador seeks renewal of trade benefits due to expire next year. The Andean country may grant Assange asylum to spite the U.S., prioritizing political gains over strategic interests, said Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director of the Council of the Americas.
“These governments of the ALBA alliance will do anything to try and humiliate the U.S. to try to score a cheap point,” Sabatini said in a phone interview from New York yesterday.
Assange, detained in Britain 18 months ago after Sweden issued a European arrest warrant, breached the terms of his bail by staying at the Ecuadorian Embassy and may be arrested again, the Metropolitan Police Service said today in an e-mailed statement.
“It seems to me he’s put Ecuador in quite a difficult situation,” according to Peter Watson, a lawyer with Allen & Overy in London who isn’t involved in the case. “Seeking political asylum following an open public trial and appeal to the highest court in the land is essentially saying the U.K. court system stinks.”
In a statement lasting less than six minutes yesterday, Patino said Ecuador’s decision will be based on international law and the country’s policy of protecting human rights, calling the issue delicate. He didn’t accept questions.
Patino read extracts of a letter from Assange in which he said his home country of Australia had “effectively abandoned” him and is “ignoring the obligation to protect its citizen, who is persecuted politically.”
Assange says Sweden fabricated the arrest warrant to assist the U.S. in paying him back for breaching its security.
Assange is accused of raping one women and of sexually molesting and unlawful coercion against a second, Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the two women, said in an e- mailed response to questions today.
“I am not surprised that Assange once again is trying to stop the extradition but I could never have guessed his method this time,” Borgstrom wrote. “I am convinced that it will be only a delay, Assange will sooner or later be extradited to Sweden.”
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who is friends with Venezuela’s leader Hugo Chavez, is an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. His Foreign Ministry offered Assange residency following the 2010 publication of U.S. government cables before rescinding the invitation.
Still, the Andean nation may hesitate to grant Assange asylum to avoid damaging its commercial relationship with the world’s largest economy, Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at political risk research company Eurasia Group, said yesterday.
“It would depend on what they gauge the U.S. response will be and whether it will actually have repercussions,” Grais- Targow said by telephone from Washington. “Ecuador needs the U.S. a lot more than the U.S. needs Ecuador.”
Assange lost his bid this month to have the U.K.’s top court reconsider a decision that would allow him to be extradited to Sweden. The court rejected his argument that the Swedish prosecutor who investigated the sex-assault claims wasn’t authorized to issue a European arrest warrant.
Assange would have to leave the embassy if his asylum request is rejected, Douglas McNabb, senior principal at international criminal defense law firm McNabb Associates PC, said by telephone from Washington yesterday. If Ecuador accepts the request, it probably would be able to escort him to the airport for a flight to Quito, he said.
“It’s a great move from a legal perspective,” said McNabb, who isn’t representing Assange or the governments in the case. “For him to be on the embassy grounds now, and for the Foreign Ministry to say he’s applied and we’re considering it, there must be something there that leads Assange to believe that it will be granted.”
Assange’s lawyer Dinah Rose wasn’t available to comment when her office was contacted by Bloomberg News yesterday evening. The office of Gareth Peirce, another lawyer for Assange, said it wasn’t offering comments to the press.
Assange, arrested in London in December 2010, may still appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The U.K. Supreme Court stayed extradition proceedings until the end of June to allow him to seek a final appeal at the Strasbourg, France-based tribunal.
“As Mr. Assange is in the Ecuadorean Embassy, he’s on diplomatic territory, and beyond the reach of the police,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement late yesterday. “We will seek to work with the Ecuadorean authorities to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters in Mexico where she was attending a meeting of the G-20 that Australia had given Assange “consular assistance at every stage” and that it would continue to help him “as we do any Australian abroad facing difficulty.”
Jay Raman, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, said Assange’s request was an issue for the U.K., Sweden and Ecuador.
The allegations against Assange became public around the same time he posted the leaked cables on the Internet, which raised questions about the Obama administration’s handling of classified information. Former Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said the government should have done more to block publication of the cables.
In April, Assange hosted a television show, “The World Tomorrow with Julian Assange,” that included an interview with Ecuador’s 49-year-old president in which they talked about their shared criticism of the press.
Correa, who regularly spars with journalists over critical coverage, has led a crackdown on the nation’s press over what he calls bias in the media.
During the conversation, Correa laughed and told an unshaven Assange, “Cheer up, welcome to the club of the persecuted.”
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