Thursday, August 16, 2012

Assange granted asylum: what happens now?

Shortly after 1.30pm on Thursday, Ecuador announced that it had granted political asylum to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder wanted by Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex offences.
Twenty minutes later, the UK foreign office responded by restating its threat to extract Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been living since seeking refuge eight weeks ago.
Ecuador has requested that Assange be given safe passage out of the embassy, while the UK has said it will arrest him as soon as he sets foot outside the building.
So what happens now?
Here are four possible outcomes:

Police officers outside the Equadorian embassy in Knightsbridge, central London (© Dominic Lipinski, PA Wire)

1) Julian Assange is allowed to travel to Ecuador, after a diplomatic settlement is reached between the UK and Ecuadorian governments

At the time of writing, this seems unlikely.
Both countries are taking an uncompromising stance. "The British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite [Julian Assange] to Sweden," said a foreign office spokesman on Thursday. "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian government's decision this afternoon does not change that."
In return, Ecuador has accused the UK of making an "open threat" by insisting on its right to enter the country's embassy to arrest Mr Assange.
In its statement granting Mr Assange asylum, the country said: "We can state that there is a risk that [Assange] will be persecuted politically... We trust the UK will offer the necessary guarantees so that both governments can act adequately and properly respect international rights and the right of asylum. We also trust the excellent relationship the two countries have will continue."

2) Julian Assange manages to escape the embassy and travel to Ecuador

This would be a very dramatic conclusion to the affair, and one that would cause great embarrassment to the UK government.
Officers from the Metropolitan Police are waiting outside the embassy, and would presumably try and catch him if they saw him trying to escape.
However if Mr Assange made it into a diplomatic car, legally he is protected. Diplomatic cars enjoy protection in international law from "search, requisition, attachment and execution". So while police could stop the car, they would not have the power to search it for Mr Assange.
The next issue would arise if and when the car reached an airport. The moment Mr Assange left the car, he would be liable for arrest. Somehow the car would need to drive directly into an aircraft, presumably of a military kind, that would then need to take off before any authorities were able to get on board.
An alternative scenario would involve Mr Assange somehow being smuggled out of the embassy, perhaps in some kind of crate or trunk. But UK authorities would be able to impound such an object were they convinced that Mr Assange was inside.

3) Julian Assange decides to give himself up to the UK authorities

Having spent eight weeks living in the Ecuadorian embassy, Mr Assange may simply decide that he has had enough and is happy to face the judicial process of extradition.
At the moment, this seems unlikely.
On hearing the news, Mr Assange reportedly said: "It is a significant victory for myself, and my people. Things will probably get more stressful now.
He released a statement later on Thursday afternoon, implying that he is far from admitting defeat:
"I am grateful to the Ecuadorian people, President Rafael Correa and his government. It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation. 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 Ecuadorian government, it is just as important that we remember Bradley Manning has been detained without trial for over 800 days. The task of protecting WikiLeaks, its staff, its supporters and its alleged sources continues."
It's worth noting that Mr Assange has not been charged with anything in Sweden and is only wanted for questioning regarding alleged offences. He has said he fears extradition from Sweden to the US, where he believes he might be found guilty of espionage and be sentenced to death. But no such extradition has been requested by the US, and both Sweden and the UK are prohibited by the European Convention of Human Rights from extraditing anyone who might face the death penalty.

4) The UK government enters the Ecuadorian embassy and forcibly removes Julian Assange for arrest

The UK foreign office has already insisted on its right to enter the embassy, citing the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987. This legislation gives the UK government the power to revoke an embassy's diplomatic status and hence allow police to enter the building unimpeded. But to do this, it would have to give seven days' notice.
However even if the UK government did decide to forcibly remove Mr Assange from the embassy, its actions could be contested in court. Ecuador could challenge the UK's decision to revoke its embassy's status. The UK government would have to argue successfully that the embassy, by harbouring Mr Assange, had broken international law and therefore the UK had the right to take action.
There is an earlier piece of legislation, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which specifies that local police and security forces are not permitted to enter an embassy unless they have the express permission of the ambassador - even though the embassy remains the territory of the host nation.
But the convention also states that embassies must respect local laws and, in no circumstances, interfere in the host nation's internal affairs.
It might therefore come down to who can make the most persuasive case in the High Court over the correct application of the 1961 convention.
Whatever the resolution, it could set a precedent that affects the status of embassies around the world in countries far less tolerant than the United Kingdom.

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