LONDON, Aug 16: Ecuador said Thursday that it was granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a decision that thrilled supporters but will do little to defuse the standoff at the Latin American nation´s London embassy, where the Australian ex-hacker has been holed up for almost two months.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Ecuador believed Assange faced a real threat of political persecution — including the prospect of extradition to the United States, where Patino said the head of the secret-spilling website would not get a fair trial.
"It is not impossible that he would be treated in a cruel manner, condemned to life in prison, or even the death penalty," Patino told journalists in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital. "Ecuador is convinced that his procedural rights have been violated."
Britain´s Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the decision, but that it still plans to fulfill its legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces sexual assault allegations.
Assange shot to prominence after WikiLeaks repeatedly released huge troves of U.S. secret documents, moves which have outraged Americans and led to calls from American politicians to have him hunted down like a terrorist.
He is wanted in Sweden for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct, but supporters fear the Scandinavian extradition effort is the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated bid to make him stand trial in the United States.
Swedish officials, and the two women who have accused Assange, have denied that the extradition bid is politically motivated. Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny declined to comment on the asylum decision, saying the issue was a matter for Britain.
Ecuador´s decision heartened supporters — there was a cheer outside the Ecuadorean Embassy when it was it announced — but is likely to have little practical effect on Assange´s current status.
He remains in the modest embassy building, where he has been staying since June 19, and British authorities have pledged to arrest him if he leaves. Swedish authorities say their investigation remains ongoing.
Britain warns Ecuador over Assange asylum
QUITO, Ecuador: A stern warning from Britain on the eve of Ecuador´s much-anticipated decision on Julian Assange´s asylum request led its foreign minister to accuse Britain on Wednesday of threatening to storm his nation´s London embassy to arrest the WikiLeaks founder.
Foreign Minister Ricard Patino said Britain had earlier in the day issued "a written threat that it could assault our embassy" if Assange is not handed over.
Patino also said he would announce on Thursday morning whether Ecuador would grant the request of the secret-spilling former Australian hacker, who took refuge in Ecuador´s embassy on June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden. Assange faces questioning there for alleged sexual misconduct.
As news broke of the warning, a number of police officers were seen reinforcing Scotland Yard´s presence outside the embassy in a tony London neighborhood near the Harrods department store.
Britain´s Foreign Office issued a statement later Wednesday citing a 1987 British law it says permits the revocation of diplomatic status of a building if the foreign power occupying it "ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post."
Under international law, diplomatic posts are considered the territory of the foreign nation.
Asked by the Associated Press about Patino´s characterization, a Foreign Office official said via email that the letter "was not a threat" and was intended to clarify "all aspects of British law that Ecuador should be aware of." The official would not be identified by name, citing policy.
Patino said the missive including the veiled threat was delivered to his country´s Foreign Ministry in writing and verbally to its ambassador in London on Wednesday. The cited was Britain´s 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act.
Patino said Ecuador "rejects in the most energetic terms the explicit threat of the official British communication."
The Foreign Office statement did not elaborate on Britain´s intentions if Assange were to be granted political asylum.
"We have an obligation to extradite Mr. Assange and it is only right that we give Ecuador (the) full picture," the statement said, before adding: "We are still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution."
Assange, whose publishing via the Internet of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables and military dispatches has angered U.S. officials, says the charges against him are trumped up.
His supporters say they believe the U.S. has secretly indicted him and would extradite him from Sweden.
Correa has said Assange could face the death penalty in the United States and for that reason he considers the asylum request a question of political persecution.
Analysts in Ecuador expressed doubts that Britain would raid the embassy.
Professor Julio Echeverria of Quito´s FLACSO university said Britain "has a long establish tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions," which under international law are considered sovereign territory.
A former Ecuadorean ambassador to London, Mauricio Gandara, told The Associated Press "I refuse to believe in this threat because if asylum is granted the British government will not grant safe passage and Mr. Assange could be in the embassy for a long time."
President Rafael Correa has expressed sympathy for Assange and said Monday that he hoped to announce a decision this week following high-level consultations with Britain and Sweden.