WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange might live as a free man in Ecuador — if he can ever get out of England.
Shortly after the Andean nation granted Assange asylum Thursday, UK authorities said he would not be allowed to leave Ecuador’s London embassy, where he has been holed up for 60 days.
The controversial free-speech advocate, whose website has rattled governments and industries, took refuge in the red brick building June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he’s wanted on allegations of sexual misconduct.
On Thursday, Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said he shared Assange’s fear that Sweden may send him to the United States where he said he would likely face “persecution” and “human rights violations” on espionage charges.
But Assange’s newly acquired refugee status left UK authorities unmoved.
“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 Ecuadoran Government’s decision [Thursday] does not change that.”
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assange was being denied safe passage because was wanted for “serious sexual offenses” and not for his work with WikiLeaks , the Associate Press reported.
The impasse likely means that Assange will remain confined in the embassy for days or weeks, until an agreement is hammered out, legal experts said.
“The way out of this would be for the United States to clearly and unequivocally say they would not seek to extradite him and not seek to indict him,” said Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents WikiLeaks and Assange in the United States. “But I think that’s unlikely to happen.”
Ecuador said it had tried to win assurances that Assange would not be sent to a third country. It also said Sweden had turned down an offer to question Assange at the embassy.
On Wednesday, Patiño warned that British authorities might be tiring of diplomacy. He said UK authorities had informed him that they were entitled to raid the embassy to detain Assange.
“It’s a clear and offensive attack” on Ecuador’s right to provide asylum, Patiño said, “free of coercion, pressure or manipulation of any kind.”
Ecuador has summoned the Union of South American Nations and the eight-nation ALBA bloc of countries, led by Venezuela and Cuba, to discuss the crisis. The Organization of American States called an emergency meeting Thursday.
While embassies are usually considered sovereign ground, the 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.”
As supporters chanted outside the embassy and waved banners in support of Assange, media outlets speculated how he might escape. Some said he might be smuggled out in an embassy car or a man-sized diplomatic pouch. One English legal expert said Ecuador’s best bet was to give Assange diplomatic immunity by naming him ambassador to the United Nations.
Lengthy embassy stays aren’t unheard of. Roman Catholic Cardinal József Mindszenty lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years, until 1971, to escape a treason conviction.
WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 as a whistle-blowing website where documents could be posted anonymously. But the organization and its platinum-haired founder caught global attention in 2010 when they began releasing millions of confidential and secret U.S. State Department cables. “Cablegate” roiled Latin America and led Ecuador to eject U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges after she suggested in one of the communiqués that President Correa was turning a blind eye to police corruption.
In a statement accepting Assange’s asylum request, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry accused the United States of persecuting Assange “for releasing compromising information sensitive to the U.S. government.”
Assange has repeatedly said the Swedish allegations, including rape, are trumped-up and designed to silence him and his organization. His mother and supporters have said they fear he’ll be sent to the United States on a secret indictment where he could be tortured or executed for espionage. But no indictment or extradition request is known to exist.
In addition, Swedish law would likely prohibit the country from sending Assange to any nation where he would face 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.”
The crisis is likely to put a strain on UK-Latin America relations. The ALBA bloc of nations said there would be “serious consequences” if authorities attempted to detain Assange in the embassy.
Correa, who is likely to run for reelection in February, has called Assange a hero.
“No one is going to terrorize us!” the president wrote on Twitter shortly before the asylum announcement was made.
Correa and Assange have been friendly since at least May, when the WikiLeaks founder interviewed him for his television show The World Tomorrow, which runs on Russian state television.
As the two men were signing off, Correa said that he and Assange were both being hounded by the United States.
“Cheer up, cheer up,” Correa said. “And welcome to the club of the persecuted.”