Assange: three big questions as Ecuador grants asylum
Will Britain carry out its threat to enter the embassy? How will Ecuador react? And how long can Assange stay there?
IT WAS announced in the capital Quito shortly after 1.30 pm today British time that Ecuador has granted political asylum to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder wanted by Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex offences.
Twenty minutes later, the Foreign Office responded by restating its threat to extract Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he sought refuge eight weeks ago.
"The British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," said a spokesman for the FO. "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian Government's decision this afternoon does not change that."
Ecuador's decision makes an already tense diplomatic stand-off super-charged – and raises three immediate questions:
1. Will British police really raid the embassy and extract Assange, as the UK authorities have threatened? They would need to give seven days' notice of such a raid, according to the The Guardian. However, an intelligence source told The Week that it was highly improbable the authorities would sanction a raid on the embassy.
2. Will Ecuador attempt to move Assange from the embassy in Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge, and fly him to Ecuador? Britain has insisted it will NOT grant him safe passage – quite the opposite.
3. Is Julian Assange still at the embassy and, assuming he is, how long might he have to stay there? The Foreign Office has made it clear that if he takes one step outside the embassy he will be arrested.
Announcing Ecuador's decision in a lengthy statement in Quito, the country's capital, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his country believed Assange was correct in claiming that his human rights are in danger of being violated if he is extradited to Sweden.
Assange believes he risks being extradited in turn to the United States where he could face a lengthy jail sentence – or even the death penalty – for leaking classified US diplomatic secrets.
Patino issued Ecuador's decision only hours after reacting with fury – as we reported earlier today – to Britain's threat to "storm" the embassy in London and arrest Assange.
Unless the UK authorities decide to expel the Ecuadorean ambassador - a move suggested earlier this week by former diplomat Oliver Miles - a lengthy diplomatic stand-off looks inevitable.
Julian Assange should perhaps be thinking about the case of the religious freedom fighter Cardinal Mindszenty who after spending years in jail in the 1950s took shelter in the US embassy in Budapest - where he remained for 15 years.
In the meantime, the WikiLeaks founder is said to be sleeping on an air mattress in small embassy office that has has been converted to a bedroom. According to the New York Times, he has access to a computer and continues to oversee WikiLeaks. Food is brought in from local restaurants.