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On the morning of August 16, in the face of rumors that British authorities were considering storming the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest Julian Assange, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patiño, announced that his country will grant the WikiLeaks founder diplomatic asylum. He declared that his government endorsed the “fears” expressed by Assange that he could face political persecution if sent to Sweden, and that such asylum would protect him from the possibility of being extradited to the United States.
Ecuador expressed its hope that the United Kingdom would respect its decision and allow Assange—now a political refugee—the right to leave for Ecuador. Assange has been at the embassy since June 19.
Patiño read from a list of points detailing the foundation for the asylum request by Assange, who he described as “an award-winning communications professional” known “internationally for his struggle for freedom of expression, press freedom and human rights in general.” He cited “strong evidence” that Assange faced possible “retaliation by the country or countries that produced the information,” revealed by Cablegate, noting that such retaliation “may endanger [his] safety, integrity, and even his life.” He said that “given an extradition to the United States of America, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, could be tried by special courts or military” and could be the victim of “cruel and degrading” treatment.
Patiño, like many of Assange’s supporters, also acknowledged that Assange must answer for the allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him, but added that Swedish prosecutors have undermined his procedural rights during their investigation. Ultimately, he said, “if Mr. Assange is reduced to custody in Sweden (as is customary in this country), [it] would start a chain of events that would prevent the further protective measures taken to avoid possible extradition to a third country.”
Prior to the announcement, Ecuador had approached the Swedish authorities and urged them to come to its embassy in London to question Assange. But when asked to provide assurance that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, Sweden refused.
The British Foreign Office responded, “We are determined to carry out our legal obligation to see Julian Assange extradited to Sweden.” It further declared, “We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the UK, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so. The UK does not accept the principle of diplomatic asylum. It is far from a universally accepted concept: the United Kingdom is not a party to any legal instruments, which require us to recognize the grant of diplomatic asylum by a foreign embassy in this country.”
In anticipation of controversy, the government of Ecuador laid out a slew of conventions, treaties and other tenets of international law going back decades, which gives it the right and authority to grant refugee status to Assange, among them, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which gives people the right to seek and enjoy political asylum in any country, for political reasons, as well as the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949, relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, which forbids the transferring of an asylum seeker to a country where he or she fears persecution for his political views.
Ecuador went even further, however, stating that it has a tradition in recent years of “accommodating” a “large number of people who have applied for territorial asylum or refugee status.” A number of Colombians, for example, have fled armed conflict. The government’s statement points out that “the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has praised Ecuador’s refugee policy, and highlighted the important fact that the country has not confined these people to camps, but has integrated them into Ecuadorian society, with full enjoyment of their human and natural rights.”
Ecuador has established that it considers asylum to be a human right and that countries should act in cooperation to grant refugee status to humans in danger. “The effective implementation of this right requires international cooperation,” Patiño said. Without such cooperation, the institution of asylum would be “totally ineffective.”
There was an escalated police presence outside the Ecuador embassy in London the night before the announcement, and a handful of people, presumably Assange supporters, were arrested by Metropolitan Police that morning. Following Patiño’s statement, hundreds gathered outside the embassy to demonstrate in support of Assange.
Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Michael Ratner, who is a member of the WikiLeaks legal team, contends that the granting of asylum "overrides the effort to prosecute Assange for being a journalist of WikiLeaks." Typically, a person seeking political refugee status or asylum might face persecution. In this case, Assange fears being in Swedish custody because of the possibility he would be handed over to the United States, where he would face prosecution over what could be considered political offenses. So long as this possibility exists, the British government should respect the granted asylum.
For now, the media coverage will undoubtedly remain focused on whether Assange can ever make it out of the Ecuadorean embassy and there are already glib posts about what him being stuck there indefinitely. But what is more important is what the UK is doing and has done. Attempting to coerce and intimidate Ecuador and threatening to storm the embassy yesterday was an astounding and dangerous move. The central focus of discussion now should be over the human rights implications of allowing or not allowing Assange safe passage to Ecuador. Additionally, if the Swedish government is genuinely concerned over the women who brought forth the allegations against him, it is troubling to see its government continue to refuse to send someone to question Assange in London. It is this refusal that ultimately helped convince Ecuador to grant asylum.