LONDON — Ecuador on Thursday granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a decision that thrilled supporters but did not defuse the standoff at the Latin American nation’s London embassy, where he has been holed up for almost two months.
Assange’s recognition as a political refugee by Ecuador’s left-wing government was a big symbolic victory for the embattled ex-hacker, but it did little to answer the question: ‘How will he ever leave the embassy?’
“We’re at something of an impasse,” lawyer Rebecca Niblock said shortly after the news broke. “It’s not a question of law anymore. It’s a question of politics and diplomacy.”
She said British authorities remained under the legal obligation to arrest Assange, 41, as soon as he set foot outside the embassy because he had been under strict bail conditions when he sought asylum at the embassy.
“He’s in breach of his bail,” she noted. “But I can’t see Ecuador changing their position.”
Staying in the embassy long-term “seems to be one of the few feasible options I can think of,” she said, adding that the question of how long Assange could stand it in the embassy was not one she could answer.
The decision to grant Assange asylum was announced Thursday in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito by Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who said there were “serious indications” that the United States could threaten Assange’s “security, integrity and even his life.”
Assange’s asylum claim centers on claims of sexual assault leveled against the WikiLeaks founder by two women he met while on a trip to Sweden in the wake of some of his organization’s spectacular disclosures of U.S. intelligence material. The women accuse him in separate cases of molestation and rape, and Swedish authorities have been seeking his extradition since late 2010.
Assange, who denies the accusations, has expressed fears that the case is the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated bid to make him stand trial for his leaks in the United States — something disputed by both by Swedish authorities and the women involved.
Patino said Thursday that it was clear that 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’s decision was warmly received by cheering pro-Assange demonstrators gathered outside the Edwardian-style embassy, just down the street from the famous Harrods department store.
“It must have been a tough decision for Ecuador because they had pressure,” said Alejandra Cazas, an 18-year-old British-Bolivian citizen outside the embassy. “Now they have to watch out that he arrives to Ecuador safely.”
How that could happen was anyone’s guess Thursday. Legal experts debated whether Assange could get safe passage in a diplomatic car, escape in an oversized diplomatic bag, or slip out when police relaxed their guard.
Meanwhile the diplomatic repercussions rumbled on. In a mark of its anger over Thursday’s asylum ruling, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Ecuador’s ambassador over the decision.
“We want to tell them that it’s unacceptable that Ecuador is trying to stop the Swedish judicial process,” spokeswoman Anders Jorle said.
Swedish Prosecution Authority spokeswoman Britta von Schoultz said the investigation into Assange was still active.
“The prosecutor has decided, with the court’s backing, to issue a European arrest warrant,” she said. “When that decision has been made, it’s difficult to rewind. For investigative reasons he needs to be here.”
British authorities have also indicated little appetite for backing down. In a statement, the country’s Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the decision to offer Assange asylum — noting that he had exhausted every appeal possible to British authorities over the course of a roughly 18-month-long legal saga.
“U.K. authorities are under binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden,” the ministry said in a statement posted to Twitter. “We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian government’s decision this afternoon does not change that.”
Britain has warned that it could use a little-known 1987 law that could give British police the right to enter the embassy to arrest Assange, though most legal experts called the move unlikely.
The inviolability of embassies “is a fundamental premise of international law,” said Niblock, who practices at London law firm Kingsley Napley.
She said that if Britain carried through with the move, “it would threaten their embassy premises around the world.”