Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s Wikileaks website published leaked diplomatic cable

Ecuador has granted asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange two months after he took refuge in its London embassy while fighting extradition from the UK.

It cited fears that Mr Assange’s human rights might be violated.

Foreign minister Ricardo Patino accused the UK of making an “open threat” to enter its embassy to arrest Mr Assange.

Mr Assange took refuge at the embassy in June to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning over assault and rape claims, which he denies.

The Australian national said being granted political asylum by Ecuador was a “significant victory” and thanked staff in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patino: “We believe that his fears are legitimate”

However, as the Foreign Office insisted the decision would not affect the UK’s legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden, Mr Assange warned: “Things will get more stressful now.”

“It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation,” said Mr Assange, who watched the announcement with embassy staff in a live link to a press conference in Quito.

“While today is a historic victory, our struggles have just begun. The unprecedented US investigation against Wikileaks must be stopped.

“While today much of the focus will be on the decision of the Ecuadorean government, it is just as important that we remember Bradley Manning has been detained without trial for over 800 days,” he said, referring tothe former US soldier accused of leaking government material to Wikileaks.

‘Legal obligation’

Announcing Ecuador’s decision, Mr Patino launched a strong attack on the UK for what he said was an “explicit type of blackmail”.

The UK Foreign Office had warned, in a note, that it could lift the embassy’s diplomatic status to fulfil a “legal obligation” to extradite the 41-year-old by using the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987.

That allows the UK to revoke the diplomatic status of an embassy on UK soil, which would potentially allow police to enter the building to arrest Mr Assange for breaching the terms of his bail.

Ecuador’s foreign minister said: “We can’t allow spokespeople from the UK to gleefully say they have been honest when they have threatened us in such a way.”

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image of Dominic CascianiAnalysisDominic CascianiHome affairs correspondent

Political asylum is not available to anyone facing a serious non-political crime – such as the allegations levelled against Mr Assange.

But does his new status mean he can now leave his Swedish problems behind? No. Asylum does not equal immunity from prosecution – and Julian Assange needs safe passage through UK territory that he won’t get.

Mr Assange knows he can’t leave without risking arrest by officers waiting outside. The police can’t enter the embassy unless the government revokes its status.

Embassy vehicles are protected by law from police searches – but how could he get into an Ecuadorean car without being apprehended? And what happens after he’s in the car? At some point he will have to get out again. Stranger things have happened.

In 1984 there was an attempt to smuggle a Nigerian man from the UK in a so-called “diplomatic bag” protected from inspection. The bag was in fact a large crate – and customs officers successfully intercepted it at the airport.

He referred to the UK’s note as an “open threat” and accused the UK of “basically saying we will beat you savagely if you don’t behave”.

Mr Patino said Ecuador believed Mr Assange’s fears of political persecution were “legitimate” and said his country was being loyal to its tradition of protecting those who were vulnerable.

“We trust that our friendship with the United Kingdom will remain intact,” he added.

The Foreign Office said it was “disappointed” by the Ecuador statement.

It said in its own statement: “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.

“We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorean government’s decision this afternoon does not change that.”

The Foreign Office said it remained committed to reaching a “negotiated solution” that allows it to carry out its “obligations under the Extradition Act”.

Sweden summons ambassador

It means Mr Assange’s arrest would still be sought if he left the embassy.

The Swedish government reacted angrily to Mr Patino’s suggestion that Mr Assange would not be treated fairly by its justice system, summoning Ecuador’s ambassador to explain.

“The accusations… are serious, and it is unacceptable that Ecuador would want to halt the Swedish judicial process and European judicial co-operation,” said Anders Joerle, spokesman for the Swedish foreign ministry.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter that the country’s “firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone”.

Scuffles broke out outside the Ecuadorean embassy

“We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary.”

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said there was now a “complete stand-off” between the UK and Ecuador regarding the status of the embassy in London.

He said the British government now had to make a decision about revoking the embassy’s status, adding that the risks were enormous – including making other embassies around the world vulnerable.

“I imagine the Foreign Office is awash with lawyers, discussing their options,” said our correspondent.

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At the scene

Stuart HughesBBC News

Julian Assange’s small, but vocal, band of supporters chanted loudly and marched along the street in front of the Ecuadorean Embassy when the news filtered through from Quito.

They, like the man they have come here to support, regard Ecuador’s decision as a significant victory against the UK, US and Sweden, all of which they claim are trying to silence Mr Assange.

But Mr Assange’s supporters also know there’s little chance of the man they regard as a hero of free speech making a public appearance on the pavement opposite the world-famous green awnings of the Harrods department store.

He would very likely be arrested if he stepped outside the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he is – for the moment at least – still protected by the diplomatic immunity granted to foreign government buildings on UK soil.

Mr Assange is locked in a diplomatic and political stalemate. Ecuador may have granted him asylum, but he still has nowhere to go.

Mr Assange entered the embassy after the UK’s Supreme Court dismissed the Australian national’s bid to reopen his appeal against extradition and gave him a two-week grace period before extradition proceedings could start.

It was during that fortnight, while on bail, that he sought refuge.

A subsequent offer by Ecuador to allow Swedish investigators to interview Mr Assange inside the embassy was rejected.

The Wikileaks website Mr Assange founded published a mass of leaked diplomatic cables that embarrassed several governments, particularly that of the US, in 2010.

Mr Assange says he fears that if extradited to Sweden, he will then be passed on to the American authorities.

In 2010, two female ex-Wikileaks volunteers accused Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, of committing sexual offences against them while he was in Stockholm to give a lecture.

Mr Assange claims the sex was consensual and the allegations are politically motivated.