Sunday, May 20, 2018

WikiLeaks founder Assange secure, yet trapped, in embassy

Julian Assange has won asylum in Ecuador, but he is no closer to getting there.

The decision by the South American nation to identify the WikiLeaks founder as a refugee is a symbolic boost for the embattled ex-hacker. But legal experts say that does little to help him avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations.

Instead, with British officials asserting they won't grant Assange safe passage out of the country, the case has done much to drag the two nations into an international faceoff.

The impasse leaves the anti-secrecy campaigner a virtual prisoner in the office where he has been cocooned since he jumped bail on June 19, beyond the reach of Scotland Yard.

That, in turn, has sparked lively discussions over the next moves in a bit of absurdist diplomatic theater starring an Australian in Britain asking Ecuador for asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden because he fears the United States.

How might he be smuggled out of the embassy? In an oversized diplomatic bag? In the ambassador's limo?

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will not allow Assange safe passage to Latin America. "There is no legal basis for us to do so," he said.

Assange, 41, shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets — including a quarter million U.S. Embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats. Amid the ferment, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault; Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.

The convoluted saga took its latest twist on Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted asylum to Assange. He said Ecuador was taking action because Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution in the U.S.

In a message posted to its Twitter account, WikiLeaks said Assange would make a public statement outside Ecuador's embassy on Sunday afternoon — potentially offering British police the chance to arrest him. The secret-spilling website did not immediately respond to attempts to contact it to provide additional details.

Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but was rebuffed by all three. If Assange were extradited to the United States "he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it's not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty," Patino said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she did not accept Assange's claim, or Ecuador's acceptance of it, that he could potentially face persecution in the United States.

Under Ecuador's asylum offer, Assange is not permitted to make political statements or grant interviews of a political nature.

Significantly, Ecuador did not grant political but rather diplomatic asylum to Assange.

"Political asylum would imply that Great Britain is persecuting him or threatens to persecute him," said Robert Sloane, international law professor at Boston University.

Assange watched the foreign minister announce it from Quito in a live televised news conference. In a statement he praised Ecuador's "courage."

In the meantime, Assange is likely to sweat it out inside the embassy, where reports say he and his ever-present laptop have taken to occupying one room, for days, weeks, possibly months to come.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

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