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What next for WikiLeaks' Julian Assange?

The WikiLeaks founder has vowed to exit "soon" from a small pocket of Ecuador in Britain's capital, but little has changed diplomatically and legally that would spur his eventual release.

Zack Whittaker Writer-editor
Zack Whittaker is a former security editor for CNET's sister site ZDNet.
Charlie Osborne Contributing Writer
Charlie Osborne is a cybersecurity journalist and photographer who writes for ZDNet and CNET from London. PGP Key: AF40821B.
Zack Whittaker
Charlie Osborne
5 min read
WikiLeaks' Julian Assange speaking from the window of Ecuador's UK embassy in 2012. Charlie Osborne/CNET

In case you missed it, Assange said he would leave the embassy "soon," after being holed up in the small embassy since June 2012.

Following the appearance Monday morning, however, his spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said that although Assange was ready to leave the embassy, it would only be when he is offered passage free from the threat of arrest.

Assange's message was anything but clear -- leaving more questions than answers. One being whether the political and legal situation has shifted since he first entered the embassy.

It hasn't. Very little has changed in the diplomatic standoff between Ecuador and the UK.

Assange, who founded the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, rose to prominence in 2010 after the leak of classified US military documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars. He remains concerned that should he step outside of the protection of Ecuador's London embassy, he will first be extradited to Sweden -- where he faces accusations of sexual assault dating back to 2010 -- but then will be forced to travel to the US. An onwards extradition, he claims, could see him tried in a US court for espionage crimes for his involvement in the release of the classified cache.

The Australian-born hacker turned media figure and document leaker was arrested in Britain, but received bail as he awaited court decisions in efforts to roll back the extradition process.

Once the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK, ruled against him, he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy to seek political asylum.

Though extradition laws in the UK have changed in the meanwhile, Assange's case is over. The 43-year-old is wanted by Swedish authorities, and allegedly by the US government, but his first and foremost crime on UK soil is for breaking his bail by absconding to the embassy in the first place.

Since then, Assange's media organization has been key in a number of leaks, including the Global Intelligence Files, which detailed private industry's involvement in massive state surveillance.

More than two years on, Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino yesterday told the Guardian that the UK government does not care to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. Patino also claimed Assange's human rights have been violated by refusing to allow him to leave the embassy due to the threat of arrest, denying him basic human rights and dignity.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office called on the Ecuadorian government to "bring this difficult and costly situation to an end."

"We remain as committed as ever to reaching a diplomatic solution to this situation," the spokesperson said, according to the BBC.

Nobody is denying that Assange broke UK law by skipping out on his bail requirements. The allegations in Sweden are unavoidable, but any charges brought on Assange in the US are questionable at best.

Ecuador and the UK remain at odds over who should budge first.

The Ecuadorian embassy is made up of a series of converted apartments. Ecuador occupies only the ground floor of the building, and British police remain in the hallways and elevators where Ecuador's reach does not extend. If Assange leaves the apartment, he can be immediately arrested.

Assange urges end to U.S. 'war on whistle-blowers' (pictures)

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Assange would be detained upon arrival in Sweden as there is no process for bail. But the concern that he could be extradited onwards remains a possibility. At least, in his eyes.

US Attorney General Eric Holder has said the US government continues to pursue a "very serious criminal investigation" into the classified leaks, but the Obama administration has not made a formal extradition request to either the UK or Sweden.

But that doesn't mean once Assange steps into Sweden, the US won't then file a request. The UK, however, would have to approve any further extradition as the first link in the handover chain.

Sweden's Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, has insisted that his country would not extradite Assange to the US if he faced the death penalty. The UK also stands by a similar policy, its transatlantic friendship notwithstanding.

Assange previously said he "fears" the US death penalty for his actions, which could be brought under espionage charges. The UK government rejected these claims, however, saying it "adhere[s] to the highest standards of human rights protection."

Of course, Assange could always break his way out of the embassy. Helicopters on the roof? Bundled out in diplomatic bags? Or named the next Ecuadorian Ambassador to the United Nations? Those scenarios would not work out -- mostly because many of those involve impracticalities due to the location of the embassy itself, or the UK's unwillingness to play ball.

As the UK will not grant Assange safe passage out of the embassy, Ecuadorian officials could appeal to the International Court of Justice, the so-called "World Court" in The Hague, Netherlands, to prevent Assange from being arrested by UK authorities if he steps outside of the embassy's haven.

Or, playing in the UK's court, the government could always revoke the status of the embassy, flipping the soil switch from Ecuadorian to British, allowing the UK police to storm the apartment.

But by revoking the status of the embassy -- which the UK says it has the right to do if an embassy's home government becomes an enemy of the state -- this puts the very nature of embassies (and its own consular efforts) abroad in jeopardy.

The UK's Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 would allow the government to revoke the diplomatic immunity of an embassy in the country, but Ecuador claimed this would be a breach of the Vienna Convention, which first set out the rules and rights of embassies in host nations.

There is almost no chance of that happening, though, the UK government having previously ruled it out.

"There is no threat... to storm the embassy," former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said in August 2012. Any actions, he said, must be "used in full conformity with international law."

For now, the stalemate continues.

Assange will remain within the embassy, which the UK grants full diplomatic immunity under conventions set out by international lawmakers. The Ecuadorians want the UK to allow him to leave the country by "honor[ing] its obligations" under international law, but the UK wants him to face trial.

The only thing that has changed is the mounting bill for the UK government to maintain a police presence around the clock at the embassy to prevent the fugitive from leaving -- an estimated cost of £7 million ($11.7m) to the British taxpayer so far.