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Ecuador Says U.K. is Willing to Start International Incident Over WikiLeaks' Assange

Update - Julian Assange has been granted asylum in Ecuador, Scroll Down for Updates.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the man synonymous with forced transparency, is caught in the middle of a diplomatic spat. After his final appeal was denied in June, Assange arrived at the Ecuador embassy in London on June 20, and has remained there ever since while he seeks asylum.

Julian Assange Asylum On Wednesday, the Ecuadorian embassy said that a diplomatic communication from the U.K. threatened them with a raid if Assange was not handed over. On Wednesday, the Ecuadorian Government, speaking from their embassy in London, said that U.K. officials delivered a threat to storm the diplomatic building if they didn’t hand Julian Assange over. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño told reporters that the U.K. delivered “an explicit threat in writing that they could assault our embassy in London if Ecuador does not hand over Julian Assange.”

In a statement issued later in the evening, the embassy said that the letter from the British is a clear breach of international law and the protocols set out in the Vienna Convention. The statement goes on to add that the clear intentions of the letter, “...stands in stark contrast to the escalation of the British Government today with their threats to breakdown the door of the Ecuadorian Embassy.”

For their part, the U.K. says that they have the power to act under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987. In a statement to the media, Britain’s Foreign Office said, “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.”

Their initial communiqué to the Ecuadorians wasn’t a threat, but an attempt to draw their attention to the relevant provisions within U.K. law.

Ecuadorian Embassy

After a meeting with his nation’s president, Foreign Minister Patiño said that if the British act, their move would be “interpreted by Ecuador as an unfriendly, hostile and intolerable act, as well as an attack on our sovereignty, which would force us to respond in the strongest diplomatic way.”

When it comes to Assange himself, he has remained inside the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly nine weeks now, awaiting word on his asylum request. It should be noted that the diplomatic spat between Britain and Ecuador comes on the even of the final decision for whether or not Assange is to be granted his request.

Assange wants asylum because he fears that if he is extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning (he has not been formally charged for a crime), he will be handed over to the U.S. in connection to WikiLeaks’ publishing stolen diplomatic cables from ministries across the globe, also known as Cablegate. Assange fears that he will be subjected to persecution, torture, or even death should he find himself on U.S. soil.

The notion of legal justice or protection here in the U.S. is not an option he feels, especially given the fact that government officials on the left and right called for his death when the initial batch of U.S. diplomatic cables were leaked to the Web in 2010.

The problem is, even if he is granted asylum, the moment he steps away from the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy on London, he is marked for arrest. He will need to remain in the building in order to avoid extradition. In fact, according to a source who spoke to Reuters, there is no way Assange can leave the embassy as the only exit is covered by police day and night.

“WikiLeaks condemns in the strongest possible terms the UK’s resort to intimidation. 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,” WikiLeaks said in a statement.

“We note with interest that this development coincides with the UK Secretary of State William Hague’s assumption of executive responsibilities during the vacation of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Mr. Hague’s department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has overseen the negotiations to date with Ecuador in the matter of Mr. Assange’s asylum bid. If Mr. Hague has, as would be expected, approved this decision, WikiLeaks calls for his immediate resignation.”

Update:

As of 12:30 a.m. EST, police presence in London around the embassy has increased some, as the door watchers – those who are looking to arrest Assange as he leaves – are reinforcing their numbers. In addition, the number of supporters is starting to increase, including the number of live video streams.

Julian Assange In Danger of ArrestOn Twitter, the overnight crowd has picked up on the situation and are offering comments, both for and against the U.K.’s actions. Others are commenting – continuing an earlier debate – on the fact that Assange chose Ecuadorian embassy for asylum at all, given the fact that it has been hammering journalistic freedoms at home.

Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, the New York Times says that the Ecuadorian government is prepared to allow Assange to remain in its embassy in London indefinitely, “under a type of humanitarian protection.” 


Update 2:

At about 07:00 London time, ten police officers entered the Ecuadorian embassy. According to reports from journalists in the area who have spoken to government officials, the police presence is due to the pending decision of asylum.

Should Assange not be granted Asylum, then police are on hand in order to arrest him. However, given the reports from international media, Ecuador is willing to let Assange remain in the embassy indefinitely, so their presence is a bit redundant if that is still true.

On the other hand, should Assange be granted asylum, the U.K. is prepared to used the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act as previously stated in order to remove him.

According to Professor Donald Rothwell, from the Australian National University College of Law, the U.K.'s move is without precedent in modern history, and may very well end up before the international courts.

"...to revoke the diplomatic protection enjoyed by the Ecuadorian Embassy in London is extraordinary and without modern precedent. It highlights how serious the United Kingdom Government is about extraditing Assange to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning over sexual assault," said Professor Rothwell.

"If the United Kingdom revoked the Embassy's diplomatic protection and entered the Embassy to arrest Assange, Ecuador could rightly view this as a significant violation of international law which may find its way before an international court."

Irrespective of the outcome of this diplomatic impasse between Ecuador and the United Kingdom, the professor added, the prospects of Assange enjoying any level of protection if granted asylum appears very remote, given the determination of the UK to extradite him to Sweden.

Update 3:

Ecuadorian media is reporting that President Fernando Cordero will convene a special session of the National Assembly in order to discuss the "unusual and arrogant threat" made by the U.K. to remove diplomatic protection. In a statement, Cordero expressed his rejection to the U.K.'s plans, calling them a clear demonstration of arrogance and disrespect.

The embassy is expected to release their decision on Assange's asylum request at about 09:00 local time.

Update 4:

Copies of the letter sent to Ecuadorian officials have emerged. A translated copy can be seen here

In the letter, it's clear that if Julian Assange takes one step out of the embassy in London, police will arrest him in order to proceed with extradition. In fact, as mentioned earlier, even if Assange is granted asylum, he would need safe passage from the steps of the embassy to a waiting car, and then again at the airport. The letter clearly states that if such a request is made, the British government will deny it.

"We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations," the letter states.

"You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy. We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us," the letter explains.

Again, in short, the U.K. has essentially said push him out, or we'll come in and get him. Such a move would be disastrous, as it would allow the same thing to happen to British diplomats in embassies across the globe, one a whim if need be. From the political side of things, the U.K. seems to have overstepped. Pundits and political experts speaking to British media are forming a consensus that the letter to the Ecuadorian embassy is all bark and no bite.

But what do today's events say about the view held by the government when it comes to Assange? Is this purely a political ploy or is the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987 a justifiable measure? The law itself isn't widely known, however it was created to deal with terrorists and terroristic acts.

The law came about as a measured response to the murder of Yvonne Fletcher in 1984 during the Libyan embassy siege. It allows the government to determine what land or building is acceptable for diplomatic or consular use.

The exact wording is as follows:

"An Act to make provision as to what land is diplomatic or consular premises; to give the Secretary of State power to vest certain land in himself; to impose on him a duty to sell land vested in him in the exercise of that power; to give certain provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations the force of law in the United Kingdom..." - DCPA 1987

The reason it was created was because the unknown person who was responsible for Fletcher's murder was allowed to leave the country, with diplomatic immunity, after all of the Libyan embassy workers were expelled. During the siege, British authorities were not able to properly address the crime, due to diplomatic rules.

While the U.K. severed all diplomatic ties with Libya in the event's aftermath, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act allows the government to strip land of its protection in the event of a similar situation and deploy force as needed.

The act is a protective measure; only to be used when international has been broken within an embassy. Ecuador hasn't done this. So using the DCPA of 1987 as a law enforcement measure in order to institute an arrest for extradition is extreme.

As of 06:00 a.m. EST, protesters in front of the embassy were being corralled by the police and cleared away from front of the building. There have been some arrests for failure to comply with instructions.

While those on Twitter are calling the arrests a form of intimidation, the reality is that the situation has the ability to become explosive - and police have to stay ahead of any potential problems.

It seriously hurt the early arrivals this morning, mostly supporters of Assange and some independent media, when they taunted the embassy patrols and standing members of the Met.

The video stream is live here.

Update 5: (7:39AM ET)

With a megaphone and masks, associates of Anonymous UK are outside of the embassy, encouraging those arriving and watching to relax and "just have a good time."

Despite Anonymous calling for people to flood the street in front of the embassy, the crowd is much smaller than expected. For the most part, the crowd, a mix of supporters and media, are waiting for the embassy to either address the current situation, offer an update on the status of the asylum request, or perhaps both.

Chants of "I love Ecuador," "I love Julian Assange," or "The people, united, will never be defeated," were started and stopped, as those who attended made their presence known.

On the live stream, the supporters and bystanders, mixed with press, shows what appears to be a growing crowd, but they are mostly scattered up and down the street. Across the Web, Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan turned human rights activist, posted on his blog that the U.K.'s recent legal posturing comes at the behest of the Obama Administration.

"I returned to the UK today to be astonished by private confirmation from within the FCO that the UK government has indeed decided - after immense pressure from the Obama administration - to enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and seize Julian Assange," Murray wrote

"The British Government bases its argument on domestic British legislation. But the domestic legislation of a country cannot counter its obligations in international law, unless it chooses to withdraw from them. If the government does not wish to follow the obligations imposed on it by the Vienna Convention, it has the right to resile from it - which would leave British diplomats with no protection worldwide. I hope to have more information soon on the threats used by the US administration."

For now, the crowd waits. The embassy is expected to address the asylum claim soon.

Update 6: (8:30 AM ET)

While everyone waits for word of the asylum request, the media in attendance are getting restless. Interestingly, as they start to talk about the wait next to live microphones, a group of five Anonymous supporters posed for pictures, holding signs with the words “I’m Julian” on them, in front of the embassy. Immediately, the media rushed them and jockeyed for position and the best angle for a quick snap. After a time, the police grew tired of the gathering and moved the crowd - and the Anons - along.

Down the block from the front doors of the Ecuadorian embassy, the crowd of supporters and bystanders continues to grow in size and in volume. Their chanting continues, which seems to be agitating the police.

At 08:00, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño once again rejected the threats from the UK during a press conference on the asylum request. He recapped the current situation and said that that no national law can be used to threaten or blackmail the sovereignty of a country, reminding the UK of the UN and Vienna Conventions against violations of diplomatic spaces. He then went on to say that Ecuador is dissatisfied with the British government because they have not yet received any apology for their threats.

In the matter of Assange and his asylum request, the government of Ecuador has examined the request and found that it was viable that Assange would be delivered to a country outside of the EU, and that if he was to be sent to the US he would not be given a fair trial. Therefore, the government of Ecuador, believing that asylum of a human right, and that the rule of law supports it (universal law, and all of their own local laws), had granted Assange asylum.

However, Assange’s problems are not over. This story is still developing, we will keep updating as events unfold.

Related -  Julian Assange: WikiLeaks' Fugitive Anti-hero  

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Steve Ragan is a security reporter and contributor for SecurityWeek. Prior to joining the journalism world in 2005, he spent 15 years as a freelance IT contractor focused on endpoint security and security training.
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