WikiLeaks’ Assange Seeks Asylum At Ecuador’s London Embassy
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought political asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London on Tuesday night, claiming he had been “abandoned” by his own government in Australia in his attempts to avert what he calls political persecution by the United States for releasing U.S. classified documents on his website.
Assange´s move comes just days after Britain´s supreme court rejected the last of his appeals against extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sex crime accusations of rape and sexual assault in August 2010.
Assange has not been charged with any crime in Sweden, and strongly denies any wrongdoing.
According to media reports, Assange walked into Ecuador´s embassy in London’s Knightsbridge district, and asked for asylum under the United Nations Human Rights Declaration.
“I can confirm I arrived at the Ecuadorean embassy and sought diplomatic sanctuary and political asylum,” said Assange, 40, in a statement.
“This application has been passed to the ministry of foreign affairs in the capital Quito. I am grateful to the Ecuadorean ambassador and the government of Ecuador for considering my application.”
Assange is now said to be “under protection” at the embassy.
In a letter sent to Ecuador´s government, Assange said the Australian government had “effectively abandoned” him, and was “ignoring the obligation to protect its citizen, who is persecuted politically.”
Officials from Ecuador said they are considering the request.
The South American nation had offered Assange residency in November 2010, but swiftly dismissed the idea after officials accused him of breaking American laws.
Ecuador expelled the U.S. ambassador Heather Hodges in April 2011, following the publication of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks claiming extensive corruption within the Ecuadorean police.
Ecuador´s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, said the country is now considering Assange´s plea.
“Ecuador is studying and analyzing the request,” Patino told reporters from Quito.
Patino confirmed that Assange had written to Ecuador´s socialist President, Rafael Correa, saying he was being persecuted, and that Australian authorities would not “defend his minimum guarantees in front of any government or ignore the obligation to protect a politically persecuted citizen.”
Ecuador´s embassy also issued a statement on Tuesday, confirming that Assange had sought asylum, and affirmed its commitment to review the request.
“This afternoon Mr. Julian Assange arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy seeking political asylum from the Ecuadorian government,” the statement read.
“As a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights, with an obligation to review all applications for asylum, we have immediately passed his application on to the relevant department in Quito.”
“While the department assesses Mr. Assange’s application, Mr. Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorian Government.”
“The decision to consider Mr. Assange’s application for protective asylum should in no way be interpreted as the Government of Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of either the United Kingdom or Sweden.”
“In order to reach a proper decision in line with international law on Mr. Assange’s application, the Ecuadorian government will be seeking the views of the governments of the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States of America.”
“The Ecuadorian government will consider all the representations carefully as it is obliged to do under the accepted process in assessing such applications.”
Assange´s lawyers declined to comment on the matter as they left the embassy on Tuesday.
Tuesday´s move by Assange appears to have surprised even some of his closest supporters, who have long argued that his removal to Sweden could be followed by a possible extradition to the U.S. on espionage charges, which could risk the death penalty.
The U.S. government opened a grand jury investigation in May 2011 into the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. embassy cables to WikiLeaks. Although the probe is the first stage in determining whether or not to prosecute Assange, no formal request for his extradition to the U.S. has been made.
Assange had been given until June 28 to file an appeal against the U.K.´s supreme court’s decision with the European court of human rights in Strasbourg. But some legal experts have questioned whether he would have strong enough grounds for such an appeal.
Last month Assange interviewed President Correa for his TV show ℠The World Tomorrow´, which is shown on the Russian state-sponsored channel Russia Today. During the broadcast, Assange described the Ecuadorian leader as “a leftwing populist who has changed the face of Ecuador”.
It is not known whether the president had made any offer of asylum during the interview.
Assange is currently on £240,000 police bail, which was posted by a number of his friends and supporters.
“I had expected him to face the allegations. I am as surprised as anyone by this,” wrote activist Jemima Khanon on Twitter, where she confirmed she had helped post bail for Assange.
The Australian journalist Phillip Knightley said he had also contributed £20,000 for Assange´s bail, saying he had no regrets about putting his money at stake.
“I’m not worried about my commitment. I would do it again. He’s an Australian and he deserves my compatriot’s support. He’s been treated terribly by the U.K. and Swedish justice systems and I think he’s the victim of a conspiracy,” he said, adding that Assange had only sought asylum “after exhausting every other possible remedy.”
Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith, who hosted Assange at his Norfolk during much of his time on bail, said:
“I certainly didn’t expect this to happen.”
“One deduces from it that he doesn’t feel he’s going to get justice by going to Sweden. I feel sure that Julian will have gone to the embassy feeling that he wasn’t going to get justice otherwise. I do feel he’s been painted unfavorably.”
Assange´s asylum request will likely focus attention on the extent of diplomatic immunity for foreign embassies in Britain.
“As Mr. Assange is in the Ecuadorean Embassy, he´s on diplomatic territory, and beyond the reach of the police,” said Britain´s Foreign Office in a statement released late Tuesday.
“We will seek to work with the Ecuadorean authorities to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters that Australia had given Assange “consular assistance at every stage,” and that it would continue to help him “as we do any Australian abroad facing difficulty.”
Jay Raman, press attachÃ© at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, told Bloomberg News that Assange´s asylum request was an issue for Britain, Sweden and Ecuador.
A message posted on WikiLeaks´ Twitter read simply: “ALERT: Julian Assange has requested political asylum and is under the protection of the Ecuadorian embassy in London.”
A follow up tweet read: “We will have more details on the Ecuadorian situation soon.”