After months of house arrest in Britain as he awaited possible extradition to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offenses, politicians in Ecuador have said WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is to be granted political asylum in the South American country. The announcement came during a press conference by Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño in the capital city of Quito. The foreign minister described asylum as a "fundamental human right."
The decision comes in contradition to the stance taken by Britain, which has said it wants to extradite Assange to Sweden.
Assange has been residing at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 19 in order to prevent his extradition. Public prosecutors in Sweden want to question Assange about accusations that he sexually harassed two women during the summer of 2010 and also raped one of them. The Australian citizen has denied the allegations.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement sent over Twitter that it was "disappointed" by the decision in Quito. "Under the law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, UK authorities are under binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden." The British government said it would carry out its obligation and that the Ecuadorean decision would not change that. "We remain committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act."
Britain Says It Will Still Detain Assange
Earlier, a Foreign Office official said the British government would not permit Assange to leave the country, even if Ecuador provided him with asylum. The official said Assange would be detained by British officials as soon as he left the embassy.
Assange is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden because, he has claimed, he fears the government there will in turn extradite him to the United States, where he could face charges relating to the WikiLeaks release of hundreds of thousands of classified US government documents, most originating from the Pentagon or the State Department. The documents, which were reported on by a group of prominent international media that included SPIEGEL, shed light on the US role in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global hot spots.
Ecuador : 'We Are Not a British Colony'
Patiño said Thursday he had received written notice from British officials that they would "assault" the embassy in London if Ecuador didn't hand Assange over. "We are not a British colony," he said. "Those times are passed." He said any storming of the embassy would be viewed as "hostile and intolerable and, as well, an attempt on our sovereignty which would oblige us to respond with the greatest diplomatic force." The British Foreign Office denied it had made any threats against Ecuador. In a statement, officials said: "Throughout this process we have drawn the Ecuadorians' attention to relevant provisions of our law."
The Ecuadorean foreign minister said that Assange could face a real threat of political persecution as well as the death penalty if he were extradited to the United States due to the publication of the WikiLeaks cables.
Scores of police were sent to provide reinforcement at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London on Thursday as the decision was announced.