Julian Assange extradition: Ecuador ‘willing to co-operate’ with Britain
Pledge on protecting WikiLeaks founder from US could lead to deal, says source as embassy complains of ‘intimidating’ police
Ecuador is still willing to negotiate with the British government over the fate of Julian Assange, despite the Foreign Office’s “threat” to arrest the WikiLeaks founder inside its embassy and the “intimidating” police presence in and around the building, according to a senior Ecuadorean diplomatic source.
The South American country’s decision to grant political asylum to the 41-year-old Australian, who faces allegations of sexual assault in Sweden, has provoked a bitter political row between Quito and London.
The source complained that the UK government’s written warning that it could use the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 to arrest Assange inside the embassy had been accompanied by a large increase in the number of police officers at the Knightsbridge building.
The police presence, it added, had risen from two or three to around 50, with officers on the embassy’s fire escape and at every window. This was described as “an absolutely intimidating and unprecedented use of police” designed to show the British government’s desire to “go in with a strong hand”.
However, the source said that Quito had been encouraged by a phone call made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Ecuadorean ambassador on Thursday. “The FCO called the ambassador yesterday to confirm that it still had the will to talk and negotiate, so we’ll keep talking,” it added.
“The fact that they called the ambassador makes us think that the letter with the threat of using domestic legislation to make an incursion into the embassy and arrest somebody inside was a mistake – as was the intimidating increase in the number of police surrounding the embassy on the same day the letter was delivered.”
It stressed that Ecuador was willing to co-operate with the British and Swedish authorities over the matter of Assange’s extradition to Sweden. “In the negotiations with the FCO, Ecuador has been proposing that we would be prepared to accept an undertaking from the UK and Sweden that, once Julian Assange has faced the Swedish investigation, he will not be extradited to a third country: specifically the US. That might be a way out of it and Ecuador has always said it does not want to interfere with the Swedish judicial process; we could facilitate it.”
The source said the Ecuadorean government had been bolstered by the support it had received since deciding to grant asylum to Assange, adding: “We are moved by the overwhelming level of solidarity that Ecuador now has in the [Latin American] region.”
Asked how Assange was coping with the pressure of life in the small embassy, where he has been living for 55 days, the source said: “He’s fine. He’s not stressed out. Given the fact that he has been under pressure for so long and that his legal fight has gone through so many different levels, I think that for his safety he always had a last resort.”
Scotland Yard declined to comment on the policing operation at the embassy, while an FCO source said the letter sent to the Ecuadorean authorities on Wednesday was not menacing and that the rights of the country’s officials would continue to be respected by the government.
“The letter was not a threat,” said the source. “There had already been many meetings with the Ecuador government. It was just that it was quite clear that they were close to making a decision and we wanted them to know the law. It was merely signposting the fact.”
The foreign secretary, William Hague, was informed about diplomatic developments on the Assange case, although a spokeswoman declined to divulge further details, saying: “We are not providing a running commentary.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, released details of the contentious letter, which he said was delivered through a British embassy official in Quito.
The letter said: “You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy.” It added: “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.”
Patiño said that Ecuador rejected the “explicit threat” made in the letter, adding: “This is unbecoming of a democratic, civilised and law-abiding state. If this conduct persists, Ecuador will take appropriate responses in accordance with international law. If the measures announced in the British official communication materialise they will be interpreted by Ecuador as a hostile and intolerable act and also as an attack on our sovereignty, which would require us to respond with greater diplomatic force.”
Hague has denied suggestions that the FCO was threatening “to storm an embassy”, saying: “We are talking about an act of parliament in this country which stresses that it must be used in full conformity with international law.”
He has also said that Assange will not be allowed safe passage out of the UK despite the asylum decision, and that diplomatic immunity should not be used to harbour alleged criminals.
It is unclear whether Assange will address his supporters at the embassy on Sunday, as has been reported. HeAssange has described the granting of political asylum by Ecuador as a “significant and historic victory”.
Ecuador claims moral high ground in Julian Assange case
Decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder goes down well with president’s supporters, but critics condemn it as a damaging move
The decision of Rafael Correa, Ecuador‘s charismatic and often hot-tempered leader, to grant political asylum to Julian Assange has gone down well with his supporters, who see their small country taking the moral high ground. But for his critics, the move is typically provocative and damaging to the country’s international standing.
Rosana Alvarado, a national assembly representative of Correa’s Alianza Pais party, was at the forefront of 50-strong crowd of protesters who gathered near the office block housing the British embassy in Quito.
Alvarado said Ecuadoreans were people who had learned to survive and assert their sovereignty in an “upright and decent way”. She said Ecuador wanted to protect Julian Assange, who had “taken on the big powers, the huge empires and economic interests to defend freedom of speech”.
“We don’t defend impunity,” she added but stressed that Swedish officials turned down the opportunity to interview Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
“The coincidences are very strange,” she said of the allegations of sexual assault faced by Assange in Sweden. “I don’t believe it could be an accident that a scandal of this kind surged when he was taking on the big powers for having revealed sensitive information.”
It was a small but noisy protest. Chants ranged from “colonialism go home” to stronger expressions such as “England: colonial son of a bitch”, which rhymes in Spanish.
“This set-up trial [in Sweden] is just a farce so they can deliver Julian Assange to the United States and apply the death penalty,” said Rosario San Roman, a journalist.
Despite his support for Assange’s whistleblowing, Correa has had a troubled relationship with the Ecuadorean press. In February, Carlos Pérez, editor of the main opposition newspaper, El Universo, was granted 14 days asylum in Panama’s embassy in Quito after the country’s high court upheld a conviction of criminal defamation against him and other senior editors following a highly critical editorial column. Correa later pardoned them and waived a $42m damages award.
“There was no safe passage for Pérez when he sought asylum in the Panamanian embassy,” said Ramiro Crespo, director of Analytica, a Quito-based thinktank. “There’s a contradiction between the way [Correa] has treated Assange and his lack of respect for journalists and the political opposition at home. It would be nice if he didn’t insult them and accuse them of corruption every Saturday.” President Correa has a weekly programme on the state-owned channel.
Crespo described the asylum move as a “distraction” to draw attention away from Correa’s domestic problems including legal security, the centralisation of executive power and freedom of expression. “Right now Ecuador is not a real democratic republic where there is a proper separation of powers.”
He added that, in granting asylum to Assange, Correa had reinforced his “anti-Americanism and assertion of Ecuador’s sovereignty” which went down well domestically, although it would probably have little impact on his already high popularity. Opinion polls show Correa has a 70% approval rating, largely due to his huge social spending in the poor nation of 14 million people. General elections are set for January 2013 and Correa is expected to win.