Ecuador has granted political Asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, nearly two months after the Australian took refuge in the South American nation's Embassy in London while fighting extradition from Britain to Sweden to face charges of sexual misconduct.
Announcing the decision, Ecuador's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the move was prompted by fears that Assange's human rights might be violated if he is extradited to Sweden to be questioned over allegations of sexual assaul. The Ministry said it would soon attempt to negotiate arrangements for taking Assange out of Britain.
"We don't think it is reasonable that, after a sovereign government has made the decision of granting political asylum, a citizen is forced to live in an Embassy for a long period," Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said.
Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy on June 19, seeking diplomatic asylum in the Latin American country to avoid extradition to Sweden. Earlier in June, the British Supreme Court had rejected his final possible appeal against his extradition, upholding its earlier ruling that the European arrest warrant for him was valid.
British police have since served Assange with extradition notice at the Ecuadorian Embassy, but they have been unable so far to arrest him for breaching his bail conditions and extraditing him to Sweden as he is currently on diplomatic territory. Assange was arrested in London on a Swedish arrest warrant in December, 2010, and later freed on conditional bail.
In response to the Ecuadorian move, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was a "matter of regret" that Assange was granted political asylum in that country, and stressed that the development "does not change the fundamentals" of the case.
Warning that Assange's case could drag on for "considerable" time under the present circumstances, Hague stressed: "We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so."
Separately, the Swedish government reacted strongly to Ecuador's fear that Assange may not get a fair treatment under its legal system, and summoned its Ambassador for an explanation.
"The accusations... are serious, and it is unacceptable that Ecuador would want to halt the Swedish judicial process and European judicial co-operation," a spokesman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Assange welcomed the Ecuadorian decision as a "significant victory" and thanked staff in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for their support. Nevertheless, he noted that UK's declared intentions to implement its legal obligation over his extradition to Sweden will make future proceedings "more stressful."
"It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation. While today is a historic victory, our struggles have just begun. The unprecedented U.S. investigation against WikiLeaks must be stopped," Assange said.
The latest development comes a day after the British government threatened to arrest Assange from the Ecuadorian Embassy after revoking the Embassy's diplomatic status under provisions of the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987 if Ecuador refuses to hand over Assange willingly. Such a move would allow British police to enter the Embassy and arrest Assange. In response, Ecuador warned that it would interpret such a move "as an unacceptable, unfriendly and hostile act and as an attempt against our sovereignty."
Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations that he had raped one woman and molested another while on a visit in August, 2010. He has since admitted to meeting the two women while in Sweden, but denied having engaged in any non-consensual sex with them. He claims that the case is part of a smear campaign aimed at discrediting his controversial website and is politically-motivated.
He fears that he could be later extradited from Sweden to the United States on separate charges relating to publishing classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables, for which he could face death penalty there. Nevertheless, Swedish authorities have guaranteed that the European Court of Human Rights would intervene if Assange was to face the prospect of "inhuman or degrading treatment or an unfair trial" in the U.S.
WikiLeaks, a website that publishes leaked classified information online, had earlier released some 250,000 classified U.S. military documents and cables sent from American Embassies around the world to several newspapers, embarrassing Washington in the diplomatic front. That move fueled a wave of public anger in the U.S., resulting in numerous calls for bringing Assange to justice for alleged treason.
by RTT Staff Writer
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