Thursday, August 16, 2012

Ecuador grants asylum to Assange, calls rape charge 'political persecution'

By Dylan Stableford, Yahoo! News | The Lookout

Ecuador's foreign minister announced on Thursday that they would grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, defying threats by the British government to raid the Ecuadorean Embassy and extradite Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in connection with alleged rape and sexual molestation cases.

"We have decided to grant political asylum to him," Ricardo Patino said at the end of a long televised statement from the Ecuadorean capital of Quito, where he criticized the U.S. and U.K. governments for failing to protect Assange from political persecution.

"The countries that have a right to protect Assange have failed him," Patino said. "[Assange] is victim of political persecution ... If Assange is extradited to U.S., he will not receive a fair trial."

"Asylum is a fundamental human right," Patino said, adding that "international law" overrides local laws, and that Assange has "the right not to be extradited or expelled to any country."

A crowd gathered outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where Assange, a 41-year-old Australian native, has been holed up since June, to hear the verdict. At least one protester was arrested.

The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office called Ecuador's decision to grant Assange asylum "regrettable."

"British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," a spokesman for the office said. "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian government's decision this afternoon does not change that."

It's unclear what will happen to Assange now. U.K. authorities say his asylum is a violation of his probation--and there is reason to believe he would be arrested if he tried to leave the embassy. "Assange is going to Sweden," Louise Mensch, a conservative member of the British Parliament, tweeted. "We are going to extradite him there. That's it and that's all. #rape"

Assange fears his extradition would lead him to be turned over to the United States, which has condemned WikiLeaks' publication of classified documents. (Assange says the U.S. would charge him with espionage; the U.S. has not said whether or not it would pursue charges against him.)

On Wednesday, Patino said he received a "clear and written" threat from British authorities who claimed "they could storm our embassy in London if Ecuador refuses to hand in Julian Assange."

"We want to be very clear, we're not a British colony," Patino said on Wednesday. "Colonial times are over."

British officials said they are obligated to turn Assange over to Stockholm.

"The U.K. has a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offenses and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation," a spokesman for Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in response. "Under British law we can give them a week's notice before entering the premises and the embassy will no longer have diplomatic protection. But that decision has not yet been taken. We are not going to do this overnight. We want to stress that we want a diplomatically agreeable solution."

In a statement early Thursday, WikiLeaks condemned the U.K.'s threat:
A threat of this nature is a hostile and extreme act, which is not proportionate to the circumstances, and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum seekers worldwide.
In 2010, Swedish prosecutors in Stockholm issued warrants to question Assange about the alleged sex crimes involving a pair of former WikiLeaks volunteers. Assange claims the charges are part of an international smear campaign stemming from WikiLeaks' publication of diplomatic cables.

After a brief international manhunt, Assange turned himself in to London police in Dec. 2010. He was granted bail and placed under house arrest. After Assange's appeals to fight his extradition to Sweden were denied, he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy.

Inside the embassy, Assange "sleeps on an air mattress in a small office that has been converted to a bedroom," according to the New York Times. "He has access to a computer and continues to oversee WikiLeaks, his lieutenants have said."

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/assange-ecuador-asylum-u-k-123726223.html