Ecuador and England are facing off over the fate of WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange, after the controversial free-speech advocate was granted political asylum in the Andean nation but remains trapped in the country’s London embassy.
Assange has been holed up in the red brick building since June 19, as he fights extradition to Sweden, where he’s wanted on allegations of sexual misconduct.
On Thursday, Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said Ecuador would grant the asylum request because it shares Assange’s fears that Sweden may deport him to the United States where he could face execution for treason.
Despite Assange’s new status, UK authorities said they will not allow him to leave the country.
“Under our law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. “We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian Government’s decision [Thursday] does not change that.”
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague also said that Britain will not give Assange safe passage, The Associated Press reported.
The standoff likely means that Assange will remain confined in the embassy until the two nations can hammer out an agreement. On Thursday, Patiño said British authorities had threatened to raid the premises and asked the Organization of American States and other regional organizations to come to its defense.
While embassies are usually considered sovereign territory the exact extent of that extraterritoriality is a matter of treaty, said David Abraham, who teaches immigration and citizenship law at the University of Miami.
“In some settings it would be conceivable that British authorities could rush the embassy to get him. It’s conceivable but unlikely,” he said. “On the other hand, he can’t live there forever.”
WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 as a whistle-blowing website where documents could be posted anonymously. The site caught global attention in 2010 when it began releasing confidential and secret U.S. State Department cables. The Miami Herald’s parent company, McClatchy, has been one of WikiLeaks’ publishing partners.
Assange has said the Swedish allegations of sexual misconduct, including rape, are trumped-up and designed to silence him and his organization. His mother and supporters have said they fear Sweden intends to send him to the United States on a secret indictment where he could be tortured or executed. But no indictment or extradition request is known to exist.
And Swedish law would likely prohibit the country from sending Assange to the U.S. if he was facing capital punishment, Abraham said.
“All the European Union countries have rejected the death penalty,” he said. “But it’s possible for the U.S. to indict him on all sorts of things that don’t carry the death penalty.”
Such diplomatic showdowns have happened before. Roman Catholic Cardinal József Mindszenty was granted political asylum and lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years, until 1971, to escape a treason conviction.