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UK 'threatens' Ecuador over Assange asylum

16 August 2012, 11:08

Quito — Ecuador accused Britain on Wednesday of threatening to storm its London embassy to arrest Julian Assange after the UK issued a stern warning to the South American nation ahead of its decision on an asylum bid by the WikiLeaks founder.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Britain had earlier in the day issued "a written threat it could assault our embassy" if Assange is not handed over.

Patino said he would announce on Thursday morning whether Ecuador would grant the request of the secret-spilling former Australian hacker, who took refuge in Ecuador's embassy on 19 June to avoid extradition to Sweden. Assange faces questioning there for alleged sexual misconduct.

As news broke of the warning, police were seen reinforcing Scotland Yard's presence outside the embassy in a tony London neighbourhood near the Harrods department store.

In London, a small group of Assange supporters gathered outside the Ecuadorean embassy late on Wednesday, according to live footage broadcast by a citizen journalist on the scene. The embassy was dark, though occasionally curtains appeared to move.

Diplomatic inviolability

British officials have vowed not grant Assange safe passage out of their country. They say they will arrest him the moment he steps foot outside the embassy.

But they had not publicly suggested they might strip the embassy of its diplomatic inviolability.

After Patino's brief appearance before reporters, Britain's Foreign Office issued a statement citing a 1987 British law it says permits the revocation of diplomatic status of a building if the foreign power occupying it "ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post".

The AP found no record of that law ever being used to justify forcible entry into an embassy. Under international law, diplomatic posts are considered the territory of the foreign nation.

Asked by The Associated Press about Patino's characterisation of Britain's warning, a Foreign Office official said via e-mail that the letter "was not a threat" and was intended to clarify "all aspects of British law that Ecuador should be aware of". The official would not be identified by name, citing policy.

Patino said the missive including the veiled threat was delivered to his country's Foreign Ministry in writing and verbally to its ambassador in London on Wednesday. The law cited was Britain's 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act.

'Beacon of free speech'

Patino said Ecuador "rejects in the most energetic terms the explicit threat of the official British communication".

The country's London embassy posted a statement on its website suggesting that "instead of threatening violence" Britain should "use its energy to find a peaceful resolution to this situation which we are aiming to achieve".

The Foreign Office statement did not elaborate on Britain's intentions if Assange were to be granted asylum by Ecuador. Its leftist president, Rafael Correa, has called the Wikileaks founder a beacon of free speech but has used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition media at home.

"We have an obligation to extradite Mr Assange and it is only right that we give Ecuador [the] full picture," the British statement said, before adding: "We are still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution."

Assange, whose 2010 publishing online of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables and military dispatches has angered US officials, says the charges against him are trumped up.

His supporters say they believe the US has secretly indicted him and would extradite him from Sweden.

Doubts over raid

Correa has said Assange could face the death penalty in the United States and for that reason he considers the asylum request a question of political persecution.

Analysts in Ecuador expressed doubts that Britain would raid the embassy.

Professor Julio Echeverria of Quito's Flacso university said Britain "has a long establish tradition in Europe of respecting diplomatic missions", which under international law are considered sovereign territory.

A former Ecuadorean ambassador to London, Mauricio Gandara, told The Associated Press "I refuse to believe in this threat because if asylum is granted the British government will not grant safe passage and Mr Assange could be in the embassy for a long time".

Meanwhile, AFP reported that the whistleblowing website Wikileaks on Thursday condemned the British threat.

"WikiLeaks condemns in the strongest possible terms the UK's resort to intimidation," it said in a statement.

'Show of force'

"A threat of this nature is a hostile and extreme act, which is not proportionate to the circumstances, and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum-seekers worldwide."

Wikileaks also said the embassy was currently surrounded by police "in a menacing show of force".

"Any transgression against the sanctity of the embassy is a unilateral and shameful act, and a violation of the Vienna Convention, which protects embassies worldwide," it said.

"This threat is designed to pre-empt Ecuador's imminent decision on whether it will grant Julian Assange political asylum, and to bully Ecuador into a decision that is agreeable to the United Kingdom and its allies.

"We remind the public that these extraordinary actions are being taken to detain a man who has not been charged with any crime in any country," it added.

A British Foreign Office spokesman has said police were ready to arrest Assange for breaching the terms of his bail granted in 2010.

Tougher stance

"The UK has a legal obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offenses and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation," the spokesperson said in London.

Wikileaks noted that the tougher stance by London coincided with British Foreign Secretary William Hague standing in for Prime Minister David Cameron while he was on vacation.

It claimed Hague's department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had overseen the negotiations to date with Ecuador.

"If Mr Hague has, as would be expected, approved this decision, WikiLeaks calls for his immediate resignation," it said.

Assange's mother earlier on Thursday claimed the United States was behind the British threat.

"What the US wants, the US gets from its allies, regardless of if it's legal or if it's ethical or in breach of human or legal rights," she told reporters in Australia.

Patino said Ecuador "has made a decision" on whether to grant Assange asylum and would announce it at noon on Thursday.

- AP


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