Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's temporary residency in Ecuador's London embassy has sparked a serious diplomatic incident, with Ecuador claiming UK authorities are preparing to 'assault' the building.
Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patiño said late on Wednesday that the UK had threatened to storm the embassy, which is in the well-heeled London neighbourhood of Knightsbridge. He added that his country would announce its decision regarding the asylum request on Thursday.
Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden over two women's allegations of sexual coercion and rape, and the UK is supposed to extradite him to that country under European Arrest Warrant rules.
The Wikileaks founder insists that the allegations are politically motivated, and says he would be deported from Sweden to the US, where he may face charges over the Cablegate leaks that severely embarrassed the US government. After spending roughly a year and a half under house arrest, he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, pleading for asylum.
Patiño said at a Quito press conference on Wednesday that Ecuador had "received from the United Kingdom the express threat in writing that they could assault [Ecuador's] embassy in London if Ecuador didn't hand over Julian Assange".
"We want to make this absolutely clear: we are not a colony of Britain and colonial times have finished," the minister continued. "Finally, I want to tell you, the Ecuadorian government has made a decision about Mr Assange's request for political asylum, and this will be announced tomorrow morning at seven o'clock [1pm BST] in this same place."
'No immediate storming'
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) told ZDNet on Thursday morning that the written document in question was an aide-mémoire left by British diplomats after meeting with Patiño, summarising what had been said during that encounter.
An FCO spokesman said the British diplomats had "expressed concern" that recent reports suggested Ecuador was to grant Assange asylum. That was likely a reference to a Guardian article on Tuesday that suggested this would happen.
"We explained we were under a legal obligation under the European Arrest Warrant to extradite [Assange]," the spokesman said. "We made them aware that the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act existed and that was an option that was available to us, but we did not want to use it."
The act in question would supposedly allow the UK to revoke the diplomatic status of Ecuador's London embassy. The FCO spokesman said the UK would have to give at least a week's notice for this to happen, and "it wouldn't be an immediate storming of the embassy". However, he said no such decision had been taken yet.
If Ecuador were to grant Assange asylum, the spokesman explained, that would still not stop him being arrested as soon as he steps outside the embassy's doors. "They could ask us for safe passage and we would decline," he said.
There have been various theories circulating among legal observers about how Assange might be spirited out of the country. One was that Ecuador could appoint him as a diplomat, giving him enough immunity to get to a plane, but the FCO spokesman said this was impossible as the UK would have to give its permission for such an appointment.
"Let's be clear, he's not going to leave the embassy without being arrested" — FCO
"Let's be clear, he's not going to leave the embassy without being arrested," the spokesman said. "He can stay in the embassy for as long as our patience will allow, or he can walk out of the embassy and be arrested."
"He's accused of serious sexual assault in Sweden — there's no question about the US. Ultimately, there are two women that were allegedly victims of crimes that he committed, and he should face justice."
In its own statement, Wikileaks said the Ecuadorian embassy was "surrounded by police, in a menacing show of force".
"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," the organisation said, adding that Assange had not been charged with any crime.
The organisation also noted that the incident had flared up while UK foreign secretary William Hague was in charge, during the vacations of David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
"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," Wikileaks said. "If Mr Hague has, as would be expected, approved this decision, Wikileaks calls for his immediate resignation."