Ecuador asylum decision sparks political controversy

By Mary O’Connor

The decision taken by the Ecuadorean embassy to offer WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, diplomatic asylum has been met with condemnation by not only the British government, but by other media sources who question the country’s motives.

Ecuador’s verdict regarding the fate of the 41-year old Australian was announced Thursday lunchtime by the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, at a conference in the capital, Quito. Patiño based the decision on the belief that Assange’s “fears of persecution were legitimate”. Assange originally sought asylum with the embassy two months ago to escape extradition to Sweden, where he fears further transport to the USA to face espionage charges, for which he could suffer the death penalty. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden for charges of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape, which allegedly took place in August 2010, as the Guardian reports.

Ecuador’s decision comes as a direct rebuttal of Britain’s alleged threats to reverse the embassy’s diplomatic status and arrest Assange by force; using the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act as the vital leverage. At the aforementioned press conference on Thursday afternoon Ricardo Patiño released official details of the letter which contained this “explicit threat” made by Britain. In the letter, the Foreign Office reportedly warned the Ecuadorean government, in no uncertain terms of the ramifications granting Assange immunity would bring, saying: “We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.”

Quito and Whitehall have been locked in a game of political ping pong ever since, which threatens to leave their diplomatic relationship in tatters. Following the threat on Wednesday, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa posted on his Twitter account, “No one is going to terrorise us”, as reported by The New York Times. Further inflammatory remarks have been made, including Patiño declaring Ecuador “is not a British colony” according to the Independent. Quito has also warned that if the UK attempted to seize Assange by force, it would be an offense to Ecuador’s sovereignty as a nation, and would be viewed as an “invasion” according to the Independent’s report.

William Hague responded to the latest move by Ecuador, expressing his “regret” at their decision. Hague continued, saying that the UK was determined to achieve a “negotiated solution”, but remained firm that Assange would be arrested if he left the embassy. On Wednesday, the Times reported that police had surrounded the embassy at Knightsbridge, in a bid to disperse protesters, which Quito took to be an aggressive and “intimidating” gesture according to one Ecuadorean official.

Mr Hague justified the British position, stating that there was “no legal basis” that required the UK to allow Assange safe passage to an airport, where he would seek to fly to Ecuador. The foreign secretary maintained that Whitehall has a “binding obligation” to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to Sweden to answer charges, concluding by saying that the UK “does not accept the principle of diplomatic asylum.” Hague cast a bleak future for the rest of the case, as he predicted it would go on for a “considerable” time.

This ominous forecast comes amidst concerns for Assange’s health as he has remained in the embassy for 55 days, without going outside and foregoing exercise. As the Independent has reported, Assange has been having delivered meals from restaurants and also has access to a computer, using it to post about his case on the WikiLeaks website.

Rafael Correa has also come under fire from local media in Ecuador, as reports from the Times indicate he is being accused of using Assange as a “political trophy” to divert international attention away from his repressive measures against the Press in his country. Talking to the Times, José Hernández, of the Ecuadorian daily Hoy, claimed the Government was “playing to the gallery.” Hernández castigated Ecuadorian hypocrisy as abroad, Quito was seen to be supporting “an icon of freedom of expression” whilst at home, enforcing strict measures against the press, as he continued to explain “What Assange did is celebrated; his imitators in this country could go to prison.”

Although both nations have said they are willing to negotiate with one another to find a mutually acceptable solution, Ecuador’s rallying of support amongst other South American countries looks set to put the UK on the back foot. Angry at what they perceive to be political and physical intimidation by Britain, Ecuador have already secured support from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela, with Brazil still pending a decision. The Times reports that in the coming days, South American countries are to gather at two emergency meetings to discuss Britain’s action. In the meantime, the Foreign Office appears “relaxed” about this.

There is current speculation that Assange will give a public statement at 2pm on Sunday, outside the Ecuadorean embassy.

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