WikiLeaks' Julian Assange granted asylum in Ecuador

The embattled Assange is at the center of a diplomatic standoff in London. It's the latest twist in a saga over a legal case in Sweden, with undertones of potential espionage charges in the U.S.

Zack Whittaker Writer-editor
Zack Whittaker is a former security editor for CNET's sister site ZDNet.
Zack Whittaker
5 min read
U.K. police stand outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Wednesday evening. Occupy London/Twitter

LONDON -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorian government after taking refuge in its London embassy on June 19.

The asylum decision follows a U.K. Supreme Court ruling in May authorizing Assange's extradition to Sweden to face questioning over alleged sexual crimes.

Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino said his government had given the matter "extreme and careful consideration."

Patino said that extensive talks were held with the U.K. to seek assurances that Assange would not be extradited to a third country -- read, the U.S. -- but that the U.K. failed to give such promises. He added that there were fears Assange's human rights may be violated.

The U.S. government has its own set of issues with Assange over classified material published on WikiLeaks.

But it seems unlikely that the U.K. will allow Assange safe passage out of the country. Police remain on the doorstep of the Ecuadorian embassy, poised to arrest the WikiLeaks founder should he leave the building.

Dozens of protesters descended on Knightsbridge, London, home to the Ecuadorian embassy, in preparation for the news released just after 1 p.m. local time.

Three protesters have already been arrested, according to London's Metropolitan Police.

U.K. extradition battle
The U.K. Supreme Court ruled on May 30 that Assange could be extradited to Sweden to face questioning by prosecutors. His lawyer, Dinah Rose, asked for the case to be reopened, claiming that the final judgment had rested on a crucial point that she had not been given an opportunity to address.

If extradited, Assange would be immediately held in custody, as Sweden does not have bail system.

Assange denies the allegations made against him, and has said he believes they are politically motivated and related to his work with the whistleblowing Web site WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks is famed for, among other things, releasing a vast trove of classified U.S. intelligence and diplomatic missives online in 2010, including material that caused embarrassment to the U.S., as well as foreign governments, businesses -- and even some members of royalty.

Assange fears that should his extradition to Sweden go ahead, the U.S. government could then request its own extradition under U.S. espionage laws.

However, U.K. authorities must approve a U.S. extradition from Sweden should that happen.

CNET's Declan McCullagh explained that Assange could be charged under the U.S. Espionage Act for his work with WikiLeaks, but that the 1917 era law could violate First Amendment rights of freedom of the press. Prosecutors with the U.S. Justice Dept. appear to be attempting to build conspiracy charges against Assange in order to avoid conflicts with freedom of speech laws.

Assange had until June 28 to lodge an appeal against his extradition to Sweden with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the highest court in Europe. His lawyer said he was considering the move, but unexpectedly entered the Ecuadorian embassy several days before the deadline.

Breaking bail
After being on conditional bail in the U.K. for 560 days, Assange fled to Ecuador's embassy in London on June 19 only days ahead of his extradition to Sweden. He has now spent more than a month under the protection of the Ecuadorian government.

London's Metropolitan Police said Assange had broken his bail conditions -- which require him to stay at an arranged address in the southeast of England between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. local time -- and faces arrest should he leave the embassy.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange in England in December 2010. Screenshot by Jonathan Skillings/CNET

However, the embassy remains the soil of Ecuador, and British police have no jurisdiction to enter what is de facto Ecuadorian territory without the permission of the ambassador.

Anna Alban, Ecuador's ambassador to London, said in June that it was "not the intention of the Ecuadorian government to interfere with the processes of either the U.K. or Swedish governments."

Armed police officers and U.K. police diplomatic protection vehicles remain outside the embassy, poised to arrest Assange should he step back onto British soil.

British vs. Ecuadorian soil: A fine line
Many have questioned the logistics of how Assange would be able to fly to Ecuador without stepping onto U.K. soil and remanded into custody.

Legal expert and former U.K. government lawyer Carl Gardner wrote on Twitter: "It's hard to think how Assange could leave the embassy, escape arrest and get on a plane. Except as Ecuador's new representative to the U.N."

Should Assange remain in Ecuadorian diplomatic territory, such as within an Ecuadorian diplomatic car between the embassy and an airport, Assange could potentially remain free from U.K. intervention. However, British police could still halt the vehicle to force him back onto U.K. soil.

Opinion is also split on whether the U.K. is duty bound under U.N. human rights legislation to allow Assange protected passage from the country if asylum is granted.

According to Matthew Happold, an expert in international law at the University of Luxembourg, individuals seeking political asylum should be surrendered if they are accused of a criminal offense or an arrest warrant has been issued for them.

"Even excluding the outstanding Swedish request for his extradition, the police have stated that he is in breach of his bail conditions and thus liable to arrest," he wrote in The Guardian. However, the U.K. authorities would have formally request Assange's surrender for that to happen.

'Uncharted territory'
Relations between the U.K. and Ecuadorian government remain tense, and likely damaged.

On Wednesday, the U.K. warned it could -- if it chooses to -- invoke an act of law that would revoke the diplomatic status of Ecuador's London embassy, allowing U.K. police to enter the former embassy and arrest Assange.

In a letter sent to and released by Ecuador's Patino, the U.K. government said Quito "need[s] to be aware that there is a legal base in the U.K... that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy."

The U.K. cited the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 that allows the U.K. to revoke the diplomatic immunity of an embassy in the country.

It would be the first time U.K. police have entered an embassy since the murder of police officer Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libya's London embassy in 1984.

Ecuador claims this would be a "clear breach" of international law, notably the Vienna Convention, which set out diplomatic rights for embassies in host nations.

An Ecuadorian spokesperson said the country was "deeply shocked by the threats" made by the U.K. government that they "may forcibly enter the embassy."

The U.K. warned in its letter that it considers "use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention." A U.K. Foreign Office spokesperson said it was under "a legal obligation under the European Arrest Warrant to extradite [Assange]."

In a statement on WikiLeaks' Web site, Assange said that the escalation in police presence was "a menacing show of force," and he condemned "in the strongest possible terms" the U.K.'s "intimidation."

The U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague can remove legal status from any embassy without needing to take the matter to Parliament, according to section 1(3) of the law, provided the U.K. complied with international law.

"We are in uncharted territory here," said Gardner on BBC's Radio 4 morning show.