WikiLeaks' Assange sets sights on leaving embassy: Now what?

Some commentators have questioned if anything has changed, diplomatically and legally, in WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange's case. Here's what could happen next.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor and  Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
Image: Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Locked inside a small apartment in central London, the only reason Julian Assange has avoided arrest is that his dimly lit ground-floor bedroom also happens to be de facto Ecuadorian soil.

Marking almost exactly two years after the WikiLeaks founder gave a similar soundbite-laden speech on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain's capital, he yesterday opted for a more modest affair, only to offer a similar string of pointless remarks, which were all but retracted after the fact.

In case you missed it, Assange said he would leave the embassy "soon," after being holed up in the small embassy for more than two years.

Following the appearance on Monday morning, however, his spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said although Assange was ready to leave the embassy, it would only be when he is offered passage free from the threat of arrest.

Assange's message was anything but clear — leaving more questions than answers. One being whether the political and legal situation has shifted since he first entered the embassy.

It hasn't. Very little has changed in the diplomatic standoff between Ecuador and the UK.

Assange, who founded the whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, rose to prominence in 2010 after the leak of classified US military documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars. He remains concerned that should he step outside of the protection of Ecuador's London embassy, he will first be extradited to Sweden — where he faces accusations of sexual assault dating back to 2010 — but then will be forced to travel to the US. An onwards extradition, he claims, could see him tried in a US court for espionage crimes for his involvement in the classified cache release.

The Australian-born hacker turned media figure and document leaker was arrested in Britain, but received bail as he awaited court decisions in efforts to rollback the extradition process.

Once the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK, ruled against him, he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy to seek political asylum.

Though extradition laws in the UK have changed in the meanwhile, Assange's case is over. Although the 43-year-old is wanted by Swedish authorities, and allegedly by the US government, his first and foremost crime on UK soil is for breaking his bail by absconding to the embassy in the first place.

"I can confirm that I am leaving the embassy soon,
but perhaps not for the reasons that the Murdoch press and Sky News are saying at the moment."
Julian Assange

Since then, Assange's media organization has been key in a number of leaks, including the Global Intelligence Files, which detailed private industry's involvement in massive state surveillance.

More than two years on, Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino yesterday told the Guardian that the UK government does not care to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. Patino also claimed Assange's human rights have been violated by refusing to allow him to leave the embassy due to the threat of arrest, denying him basic human rights and dignity.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office called on the Ecuadorean government to "bring this difficult and costly situation to an end."

"We remain as committed as ever to reaching a diplomatic solution to this situation," the spokesperson said, according to the BBC.

Nobody is denying that Assange broke UK law by skipping out on his bail requirements. The allegations in Sweden are unavoidable, but any charges brought on Assange in the US are questionable at best.

Ecuador and the UK remain at odds over who should budge first.

The Ecuadorian embassy is made up of a series of converted apartments. Ecuador occupies only the ground floor of the building, however, and British police remain in the hallways and elevators where Ecuador's reach does not extend. If he leaves the apartment, he can be immediately arrested.

Assange would be detained upon arrival in Sweden as there is no process for bail.

But the concern that he could be extradited onwards remains a possibility. At least, in Assange's eyes.

US Attorney General Eric Holder has said the US government continues to pursue a "very serious criminal investigation" into the classified leaks, but the Obama administration has not made a formal extradition request to either the UK or Sweden.

But that doesn't mean once Assange steps into Sweden, the US won't then file a request. The UK, however, would have to approve any further extradition as the first link in the handover chain.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has insisted that his country would not extradite Assange to the US if he faced the death penalty. The UK also stands by a similar policy, its transatlantic friendship notwithstanding.

Assange previously said he "fears" the US death penalty for his actions, which could be brought under espionage charges. The UK government rejected these claims, however, saying it "adhere[s] to the highest standards of human rights protection."

Of course, Assange could always break his way out of the embassy. Helicopters on the roof? Bundled out in diplomatic bags? Or named the next Ecuadorian Ambassador to the United Nations? Those scenarios would not work out — mostly because many of those involve impracticalities due to the location of the embassy itself, or the UK's unwillingness to play ball.

As the UK will not grant Assange safe passage out of the embassy, Ecuadorian officials could appeal to the International Court of Justice, the so-called "World Court" in The Hague, Netherlands, to prevent Assange from being arrested by UK authorities if he steps outside of the embassy's safe haven.

Or, playing in the UK's court, the government could always revoke the status of the embassy, flipping the soil switch from Ecuadorian to British, allowing the UK police to storm the apartment.

But by revoking the status of the embassy — which the UK says it has the right to do if an embassy's home government becomes an enemy of the state — this puts the very nature of embassies (and its own consular efforts) abroad in jeopardy.

The UK's Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 would allow the government to revoke the diplomatic immunity of an embassy in the country, but Ecuador claimed this would be a breach of the Vienna Convention, which first set out the rules and rights of embassies in host nations.

There is almost no chance of that happening, though, the UK government having previously ruled it out.

"There is no threat... to storm the embassy," former UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said in August 2012. Any actions, he said, must be "used in full conformity with international law."

For now, the stalemate continues.

Assange will remain within the embassy, which the UK grants full diplomatic immunity under conventions set out by international lawmakers. The Ecuadorians want the UK to allow him to leave the country by "honor[ing] its obligations" under international law, but the UK wants him to face trial.

The only thing that has changed is the mounting bill for the UK government to maintain a police presence around the clock at the embassy to prevent the fugitive from leaving — an estimated cost of £7 million ($11.7m) to the British taxpayer so far.

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