UK – Britain was locked in a farcical diplomatic stand-off with Ecuador last night after the South American country granted asylum to WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange.
Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning over sexual assault allegations, has spent nearly two months hiding from the law in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Yesterday more than 40 policemen surrounded the building in central London to ensure the Australian could not be smuggled out.
A further six officers were stationed in the communal areas of the building, guarding lifts and access to the roof, as part of an operation that will cost at least £50,000 a day.
The moment Mr Assange sets foot outside the confines of the embassy, which is just yards from Harrods, the 41-year-old will be arrested.
Police will be equipped with heat detection equipment to beat any attempt to use special diplomatic bags or furniture to aid his escape.
Scores of his supporters added to the circus atmosphere chanting ‘hands off Ecuador’ and ‘Julian Assange freedom fighter’.
Many of them wore masks associated with the Anonymous hacking group that has attacked government websites.
There was applause as the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, declared that Assange had been given ‘diplomatic asylum’ at a press conference in the capital, Quito.
‘We believe that his fears are legitimate and there are the threats that he could face political persecution.
‘We trust that that the UK will offer as soon as possible the guarantee for the safe passage of asylum for Mr Assange and they will respect those international agreements they have signed in the past.’
Yesterday, less than 24 hours after threatening to rescind the building’s diplomatic protections and forcibly enter it, the Foreign Office was forced into a humiliating climbdown.
It accepted the need for a ‘a negotiated solution’ to the deadlock and was reduced to insisting that Mr Assange would be arrested if he tried to leave.
If an agreement is not reached and he cannot escape, he could be forced to spend months or even years in legal limbo inside the embassy building, where he has until recently been forced to sleep on a blow-up bed.
Ministers’ only option appears to be to encourage other countries to put pressure on Ecuador to agree a deal.
The row over Mr Assange’s future erupted on Wednesday night when Ecuador’s foreign minister went public with a note from the British charge d’affairs threatening to use an obscure law to rescind the building’s diplomatic status, storm the building and make the arrest.
British officials said it was an attempt to ‘rattle their cage’ but Mr Patino reacted with fury, claiming such a move would be seen as a ‘hostile act’.
Announcing the decision to award ‘diplomatic asylum’ in a televised statement yesterday, he said Mr Assange was a victim of political persecution and could face the death penalty if sent to the US by Sweden.
Mr Assange’s supporters fear he could face charges of sedition and espionage over the release of tens of thousands of secret US documents by the WikiLeaks site two years ago.
Mr Patino said: ‘It is not impossible that he would be treated in a cruel manner, condemned to life in prison, or even the death penalty.’
The decision was condemned by Foreign Secretary William Hague who said asylum was being used ‘for the purposes of escaping the regular processes of the court.’
He added: ‘No one, least of all the government of Ecuador, should be in any doubt that we are determined to carry out our legal obligation to see Mr Assange extradited to Sweden.
‘This is not about Mr Assange’s activities at WikiLeaks or the attitude of the United States of America.
‘He is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offences.’
Both the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg’s private offices spoke yesterday morning to William Hague’s office urging that the rhetoric be toned down.
‘The message was “calm the heck down”,’ a senior Whitehall source said.
Mr Hague admitted he had authorised the communications with Ecuador, including the reference to the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act which allow the suspension of normal embassy rules.
The law was a response to the shooting dead of WPC Yvonne Fletcher from inside the Libyan embassy in 1984.
Last night senior diplomats privately condemned the Ecuadorian government which they said had been captured by left-wingers similar to Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chavez – who regard Mr Assange as a hero because they hate the United States.
‘There is evidence that he did not turn up there by accident,’ a senior source said.
Mr Assange welcomed the decision to grant him asylum as a ‘significant victory’ made by a ‘courageous, independent Latin American nation’.
Last night the WikiLeaks Twitter feed announced he would make a televised statement from the embassy on Sunday – in what would be a further humiliation for ministers.
His lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC, claimed the blunder over the threatening letter happened because ‘all the good lawyers’ at the Foreign Office were away on holiday.
Human rights activists poured scorn on Ecuador’s claim to be protecting human rights.
The regime has a notorious record for persecuting both journalists and its political opponents.
Mr Assange entered the embassy on June 19, after a two-year legal battle against extradition under the European Arrest Warrant.
His case against extradition was rejected by a district court, at the High Court and went all the way to the Supreme Court where it also failed.
He was granted bail after sureties worth nearly £250,000 were pledged by his supporters, who include film director Ken Loach, socialite Jemima Khan and journalist John Pilger.
A hearing has been set for next month when a judge will decide if the money should be forfeit.
There was applause as the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, declared that Assange had been given ‘diplomatic asylum’ at a press conference in the capital, Quito
There was applause as the Ecuadorian foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño (pictured), declared that Assange had been given ‘diplomatic asylum’ at a press conference in the capital, Quito
Inside the embassy… a sunlamp and a treadmill
For the past 59 days, Julian Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in fear of being arrested if he steps outside.
The embassy, which occupies part of the first floor of a block of flats in Knightsbridge, consists of only ten rooms and a basement – almost all of which are offices.
The 41-year-old slept on an inflatable mattress for much of his stay but now has a permanent bed.
His room also contains a treadmill, a computer and a sunlamp sent to him by his mother.
The embassy also has a small kitchen and bathroom – complete with a hastily installed shower.