LONDON — The furor over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s future entered stalemate mode today as he remained holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy, his home for nearly two months, following an extraordinary display of brinkmanship between Britain and the South American country.
The lanky Australian is the subject of an international tug-of-war, with Swedish prosecutors seeking to question him about alleged sexual misconduct and Britain refusing to let him travel to Ecuador even though that South American country has offered him asylum.
Britain says it can’t allow Assange safe passage because of the European arrest warrant demanding his return to Sweden — and has said it may use a little-known law to revoke the Ecuadorean embassy’s status so that Assange could be taken into custody and extradited to Sweden.
WikiLeaks has indicated that Assange would make a public statement outside Ecuador’s embassy on Sunday afternoon, but the controversial secret-spilling group did not spell out how Assange could do so without facing immediate arrest by British police, who are maintaining a presence outside the embassy in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge neighborhood.
It is possible Assange could make his statement from a window inside the embassy, or use a video link to make a statement without having to step outside.
He has welcomed Ecuador’s decision to give him asylum, which was made Thursday when Ecuador’s left-leaning government backed Assange’s claim that he faces possible unjust prosecution in the United States because of his WikiLeaks work.
Assange shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets — including a quarter million U.S. Embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats.
Amid the ferment, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault; Assange, who denies wrongdoing, has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.
There are many players in the complicated case. Interpol, the Lyon, France-based international police agency, issued a statement late Thursday saying Assange remains on the equivalent of its most-wanted list, the Ecuadorean decision notwithstanding.
The saga took its latest twist on Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted asylum to Assange, who has been holed up inside the small, coastal nation’s embassy since June 19. He said Ecuador was taking action because Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.
That was a nod to the fears expressed by Assange and others that the Swedish sex case is merely the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States — something disputed by both Swedish authorities and the women involved.
Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but was rebuffed by all three. If Assange were extradited to the U.S. “he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it’s not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty,” Patino said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she did not accept Assange’s claim, or Ecuador’s acceptance of it, that he could potentially face persecution in the United States. “With regard to the charge that the U.S. was intent on persecuting him, I reject that completely,” she said Thursday.
Under Ecuador’s asylum offer, Assange is not permitted to make political statements or grant interviews of a political nature, restrictions that are standard for anyone granted asylum, said an Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.