Sang Tan, Associated Press
LONDON — He's won asylum in Ecuador, but Julian Assange is no closer to getting there.
The dramatic 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 — and does much to drag Britain and Ecuador into a contentious international faceoff.
"We're at something of an impasse," lawyer Rebecca Niblock said shortly after the news broke. "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 had been holed up at 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.
Patino said there were "serious indications" that the United States could threaten Assange's "security, integrity and even his life," 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 by Swedish authorities and the women involved.
He said he'd tried to get guarantees from the Americans, the British, and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but that all three had rebuffed him. He said it was clear that 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's decision was warmly received by cheering pro-Assange demonstrators gathered outside the Edwardian-era embassy building, just down the street from the famous Harrods department store.
"It must have been a tough decision for Ecuador because they had pressure," said Alejandra Cazas, an 18-year-old British-Bolivian citizen outside the embassy. "Now they have to watch out that he arrives to Ecuador safely."
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain will not allow Assange safe passage out of the country.
"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.
How Assange can get to Ecuador despite this obstacles was anyone's guess Thursday. Legal experts debated whether Assange could get safe passage in a diplomatic car, escape in an oversized diplomatic bag, or slip out when police relaxed their guard.
Some said he had little choice but to stay put — potentially for years on end.
Niblock, who practices at London law firm Kingsley Napley, said that staying in the embassy long-term "seems to be one of the few feasible options I can think of."
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 country's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said in a message posted to Twitter that "our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and every one. We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary."
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa did seem to be any mood for compromise either, posting a tweet which read: "No one is going to frighten us."
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.
They could fray much further if Britain's decides to enforce a little-known 1987 law that gives the U.K. the right to enter the embassy to arrest Assange — a development most legal experts called unlikely and potentially dangerous.
The inviolability of embassies "is a fundamental premise of international law," said Niblock.
If Britain carried through with the move, "it would threaten their embassy premises around the world."
Solano reported from Quito, Ecuador. Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, Jill Lawless and Raissa Ioussouf in London, and Louise Nordstrom and Karl Ritter in Stockholm all contributed to this report.
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