Ecuador grants asylum to WikiLeaks’ Assange

LONDON (AP) — He’s won asylum in Ecuador, but Julian Assange is no closer to getting there.

The decision by the Latin American nation to identify the WikiLeaks founder as a political refugee is a symbolic boost for the embattled ex-hacker. But legal experts say that does little to help him avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations.

Instead, with British officials asserting they won’t grant Assange safe passage out of the country, the case has done much to drag the two nations into an international faceoff.

“We’re at something of an impasse,” lawyer Rebecca Niblock said. “It’s not a question of law anymore. It’s a question of politics and diplomacy.”

The silver-haired Australian shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets — including a quarter million U.S. Embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats. Amid the ferment, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault; Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.

The convoluted saga took its latest twist on Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted political asylum to Assange, who has been holed up inside the small, coastal nation’s embassy since June 19. He said Ecuador was taking action because Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.

That was a nod to the fears expressed by Assange and others that the Swedish sex case is merely the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States — something disputed by both Swedish authorities and the women involved.

Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but was rebuffed by all three. If Assange were extradited to the U.S. “he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it’s not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty,” Patino said.

Ecuador’s decision was warmly received by the 41-year-old Assange, who watched as it was announced in a live televised news conference from Quito. In a statement he praised Ecuador’s “courage.”

But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will not allow Assange safe passage to Latin America. “There is no legal basis for us to do so,” he said.

He said Assange was wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of “serious sexual offenses” and that the extradition had nothing to do with the work of WikiLeaks or with the United States.

Supporters who have visited Assange say he is living inside a tiny office at Ecuador’s embassy, a small apartment of five or six rooms inside a larger building which also houses Colombia’s embassy.

The diplomatic repercussions continued Thursday with an unlikely confrontation between Sweden and Ecuador.

In a mark of its anger over the asylum ruling, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Ecuador’s ambassador to complain about the decision.

The issue already seems to have frayed diplomatic ties between the U.K. and Ecuador. Britain’s previous ambassador to Ecuador, Linda Cross, departed earlier this year and had been due to be replaced this month by Patrick Mullee. But his arrival has been delayed.

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