Fugitive Julian Assange faces arrest after asylum bid

  • @jerometaylor

Julian Assange was warned last night that he faces immediate arrest if he leaves the Ecuadorean embassy after his asylum application.

The WikiLeaks founder has taken refuge inside the South American country's London embassy in an attempt to escape extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning about sex-assault claims. Foreign Office officials confirmed the transparency campaigner remains "beyond the reach" of police.

But even if Ecuador grants him asylum, any attempt by Mr Assange, 40, to travel to the airport could result in his arrest as soon as he steps out of the embassy door, unless a diplomatic deal is reached.

Mr Assange's flight to Ecuador's red-brick embassy in well-heeled Knightsbridge is the latest extraordinary twist in his long-running campaign to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women. He fears the move is one that will bring him a step closer to extradition to the United States.

Last night the alleged victims' lawyer described Mr Assange's asylum claim as a "tragedy for the women".

It is also a blow to his celebrity supporters who put up £240,000 in surety money. High-profile backers such as Jemima Khan and the film director Ken Loach look set to lose tens of thousands of pounds each as police confirmed that they would seek Mr Assange's arrest for breaching bail conditions, which insist on him spending nights at a previously arranged address.

A handful of followers and friends stood vigil outside the embassy, holding placards.

Gavin MacFayden, a friend of Mr Assange and the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, said the WikiLeaks founder was in "good humour" but had yet to be told whether his asylum claim would be successful.

"There are big issues involved in this case," he said. "What is being done to Julian is not just. This is all to do with his security as a person against major attempts to 'bring him to justice'."

Mr Assange's fate is now largely hostage to diplomatic negotiations and whether Ecuador is willing to incur the wrath of Britain, the US and Sweden over one man.

But his decision to seek sanctuary with the Ecuadoreans appears long-planned. The country's left-leaning President Rafael Correa has spoken in glowing terms of Mr Assange and recently appeared on the WikiLeaks founder's interview show for the Kremlin-owned Russia Today. Mr Correa is under fire back home for clamping down on a critical press and many Ecuadoreans have speculated that – with an election coming up next year – handing a lifeline to Mr Assange would boost his popularity and help quash criticism that he is authoritarian.

In a series of cryptic messages on Twitter, the country's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño suggested that Mr Assange's application would be looked upon favourably.

One tweet said: "We are ready to defend principles, not narrow interests." Another stated: "Julian Assange says he received death threats, extrajudicial financial blockade and the possibility of being handed over to US authorities."

Mr Assange's backers, who put up surety money to avoid him being held in prison while lengthy extradition proceedings took place, said they had not been informed that he was planning to flee to the Ecuadorean embassy.

Q&A: Assange: why Ecuador, and what now for him?

Q Why did Julian Assange pick the Ecuadorean embassy?

A Ecuador's government is an ally of Mr Assange. When the US first started threatening to pursue the WikiLeaks founder after the release of the State Department's cables in November 2010, Ecuador offered him asylum. The offer was later withdrawn but in recent months Mr Assange has grown close once more to the government of Rafael Correa, who recently appeared on a talk show and described him as "persecuted".

Q Why can't the police just go in and arrest him?

A One of the cornerstones of international relations is diplomatic immunity, which allows embassies to work without fear of political persecution, even during times of conflict. Although an embassy remains the territory of the host nation, it is effectively a little chunk of a country on foreign soil. A host nation can can only enter an embassy if they have the express permission of the ambassador.

Q Is Julian Assange now safe?

A Not really. In many ways the WikiLeaks founder has exchanged one form of house arrest for another. As soon as he steps off embassy property he could be arrested for breaching his bail conditions. Ecuador might decide it is not worth having a diplomatic spat over him and kick him out. Even if it grants him asylum, he can't get to an airport without entering UK soil. Only with the agreement of both Britain and Ecuador could he travel abroad and that is unlikely.

Q What happens now?

A Much will depend on diplomatic negotiations. Ecuador is obliged to consider Mr Assange's asylum application under international law. If it approves it, it will then need to negotiate with Britain to take him to Quito without him being arrested. Or, the Ecuadoreans might offer him full-time sanctuary in the embassy – a tactic that is common in Latin America but has not been seen in Europe since the Cold War.