Deadlock in Julian Assange saga continues

Frank Augstein/AP - Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange show letters that read “Free Assange” as they wait for his appearance in front of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London on Sunday.

LONDON— British and Ecuadoran officials said Monday that they had failed to make a breakthrough in the standoff over Julian Assange, the controversial Wiki­Leaks founder who has spent the past year holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy.

Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who recently argued that Assange has a “fundamental right” to sunbathe, met with his British counterpart, William Hague, for 45 minutes Monday, but they failed to end the diplomatic deadlock.

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Assange shot to international attention in 2010, when his anti-secrecy Web site released a huge cache of confidential military and diplomatic cables, enraging the U.S. government.

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is on trial at Fort Meade in Maryland over allegations that he gave classified material to WikiLeaks.

A year ago this Wednesday, Assange dramatically sought refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy — next to Harrods in London’s salubrious Knightsbridge area — in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to question him about alleged sex crimes. Assange, who denies wrongdoing, walked into the embassy five days after he lost a marathon legal battle in the British courts, which ultimately upheld an extradition warrant from Sweden.

Sweden has been unable to enforce the warrant because Ecuador has granted the 41-year-old Australian political asylum, acknowledging Assange and his supporters’ fears that if he is sent to Sweden, he risks being handed over to the United States and tried for espionage.

In a statement, Britain’s Foreign Office said that a working group will be formed to find a resolution but that “no substantive progress was made” in talks Monday, adding that Britain was clear that “any resolution would need to be within the laws of the United Kingdom.”

Assange may be holed up, but he has remained active with WikiLeaks, which over the past year has published several troves of documents, including a searchable volume of intelligence records from the 1970s and 2.4 million e-mails related to Syria. Connected to the world via video link and the Internet, Assange frequently weighs in on issues such as Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about the agency’s secret surveillance programs; the WikiLeaks movie “The Fifth Estate,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and why Australians should vote for the WikiLeaks Party in upcoming elections.

Sometimes, Assange takes a break from work to look out a window at a small cluster of supporters who gather daily outside the embassy.

“Julian knows we are here, and he appreciates it very much,” said Clara Torres, 62, a retired nurse from Chile who was standing outside the Ecuadoran Embassy, carrying a placard that read “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

She then pointed to the five police officers within view, including one stationed in a glass stairwell that she said faced Assange’s room.

The cost of around-the-clock policing — officers are ready to arrest Assange the moment he steps outside the embassy — has exceeded $5 million, a London police spokesman said.

Britain and Ecuador had a “perfectly normal working relationship” until Assange strode into the Ecuadoran Embassy last June, said Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a Latin America expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. He said that relations are now “correct, but not warm,” and that the most likely resolution would be an arrangement “that would allow Ecuador to save face,” such as Britain offering assurances via Sweden that Assange would not be deported to the United States.

Assange remains a polarizing figure, and some former allies have pulled their support, notably journalist Jemima Khan, who wrote a cover article in New Statesmen magazine this year explaining why her views have shifted from “admiration to demoralisation.”

“Assange’s noble cause and his wish to avoid a U.S. court does not trump their [the two Swedish women who have accused Assange of sexual assault] right to be heard in a Swedish court,” she wrote.

Other high-profile supporters, including Lady Gaga and Oliver Stone, have visited Assange in the embassy and tweeted photos of themselves posing with the silver-haired activist.

In an interview aired over the weekend on al-Jazeera, Assange said he will be “reasonably surprised” if the impasse at the embassy is not resolved within two years. He added that he will willingly go to Stockholm if he receives a guarantee that he will not be handed over to the United States.

“Theoretically, it could go on and on,” said Rebecca Hill, a London-based extradition expert. “I can’t imagine Swedish authorities withdrawing their request, and similarly I can’t imagine a circumstance which our courts will review the order of extradition. So really, it has to come down to him and how long he can tolerate it.”

Although Monday’s talks left many wondering what will happen next, Assange’s supporters say the WikiLeaks founder is as robust as ever.

He “is perfectly capable of running his organization from the Ecuadoran Embassy,” said Vaughan Smith, a restaurateur and friend of Assange’s. “It’s pretty tough not getting any sunshine for a year, but I think he’s a tough chap.”

 
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