Ecuador Grants Julian Assange Asylum, Defying Britain
CARACAS, Venezuela — Ecuador forcefully rejected pressure from Britain and announced Thursday that it was granting political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who has been holed up for two months in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London trying to avoid extradition to Sweden.
The decision, citing the possibility that Mr. Assange could face “political persecution” or be sent to the United States to face the death penalty, escalated the unusually sharp strains between Ecuador and Britain, and drew an angry rebuttal from Sweden. The Ecuadorean move protects Mr. Assange from British arrest, but only on Ecuadorean territory, leaving him vulnerable if he tries to leave the embassy to head to an airport or train station.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, made the announcement at a news conference in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito.
“The government of Ecuador, faithful to its tradition of protecting those who seek refuge in its territory or in its diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange,” he said, reading from a government communiqué. He added, “There are indications to presume that there could be political persecution,” and said Mr. Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States and could face the death penalty there.
Mr. Patiño said he hoped that Britain would permit Mr. Assange to leave the embassy for Ecuador. But at a news conference on Thursday in London, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, repeated the government’s stance that Britain was legally bound to to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over accusations that he sexually assaulted two women.
Tensions between Britain and Ecuador had been building over Britain’s efforts to secure a handover of Mr. Assange. Mr. Hague described a multitude of negotiations for a handover, including “seven formal discussions as well as many other conversations.” But Wednesday night, Mr. Patiño said the British authorities had threatened to force their way into the embassy, adding, “We are not a British colony.” On Thursday, just before the announcement of asylum, President Rafael Correa said on his Twitter account: “No one is going to terrorize us!”
The president of the National Assembly of Ecuador called a special session for Thursday evening to discuss the perceived threat against the embassy by the British government.
The British Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the Ecuadorean announcement but remained committed to a negotiated outcome to the standoff. Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, rejected the suggestion that Sweden would be involved in any kind of persecution. “Our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone,” he wrote on Twitter. “ We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary.”
A spokesman for Sweden’s Foreign Ministry, Anders Jorle, said the country’s legal system had been impugned and the Ecuadorean ambassador had been summoned.
In Sweden, Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the two women who have accused Mr. Assange of sexual abuses, told the online newspaper Expressen.se that the women had expected the decision but still thought it absurd and were disappointed.
“Assange is a coward,” Mr. Borgstrom said. “He is accused of assault, but he is totally uninterested in my clients. He has shifted his focus elsewhere.”
Mr. Patiño’s news conference was broadcast live on British television and Mr. Assange watched the announcement as it happened, British news reports said. He told embassy staff members: “It is a significant victory for myself and my people. Things will probably get more stressful now.”