The surprise move found the self-described advocate of free speech — who had already accepted financial support from a Kremlin-backed TV station to launch his new talk show — petitioning for asylum from a government that human rights groups say has one of the worst track records on press rights in South America. The move also amounted to a potentially embarrassing diplomatic headache for the British government.
Assange is hardly the first person to seek political asylum, as experts immediately noted by referencing the recent case of the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and is now studying in New York. Yet, just as U.S. officials had to do with China, Ecuador would first need to reach an agreement with British authorities granting Assange safe passage, should it decide to offer asylum to the 40-year-old Australian. As of Wednesday, that seemed an unlikely development for a man accused of rape, as opposed to dissident behavior, and with British officials pointedly saying that Assange would be subject to immediate arrest if he leaves the embassy.
Assange’s bail conditions in Britain included a form of house arrest between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. — a condition he has violated by holing up in Ecuador’s mission.
“He is now subject to arrest under the Bail Act for breach of these conditions,” Britain’s Metropolitan Police, better known as Scotland Yard, said in a statement. “Officers are aware of his location at The Ecuador Embassy.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, Ecuador’s ambassador in London, Anna Alban, said she had met with British officials earlier in the day to discuss the asylum request. She said she had explained “that the decision on Mr. Assange’s application would be assessed by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Quito and would take into account Ecuador’s long and well-established tradition in supporting human rights.”
Kathryn Cronin, a lawyer specializing in asylum and immigration issues at Garden Court Chambers, a London-based law firm, said that even if Ecuador grants the asylum request, “the problem for Assange is leaving the Ecuadorian Embassy and getting to the airport and Ecuador.” That can be resolved, she said, only if some agreement is reached after negotiations at a “ministerial level” between Ecuador and Britain.
Cronin suggested, however, that Assange might be using his asylum bid as a negotiating tactic to extract promises from Swedish authorities that he would not be re-extradited to the United States should he travel to Stockholm. Assange has repeatedly asserted that Washington has readied a secret indictment against him over the release by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of secret U.S. government cables.
“His concern is not so much the Swedish problems, but the prospect that Sweden might seek to remove him to the States,” Cronin said, adding that “he may very well be using this arrangement as a mechanism to get some higher-level negotiations that will give him an opportunity to avoid American removal after Swedish investigations are completed.”
Assange’s bid comes as he was close to exhausting his legal options to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning about separate encounters he had there with two WikiLeaks volunteers in August 2010. Although he admits to brief affairs with the women, he denies their allegations of rape, sexual assault and unlawful coercion.