Julian Assange’s Swedish lawyer admitted today that his client’s decision to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy made him look like he was trying to avoid facing sexual assault allegations. But he said the threat of extradition to the United States forced the 40-year-old to take such drastic action.
Speaking to The Independent as Mr Assange prepared to spend a fourth night inside the cramped embassy, Thomas Olsson said he understood why some felt his client’s actions might make it look like he was “running away from his responsibilities”.
“It makes him look like a suspect in the public’s eye and it allows his enemies to portray him as someone who is trying to avoid these charges [in Sweden],” he said. “But the threat of extradition to the United States is substantial.”
Washington has yet to make any formal request to have the WikiLeaks founder handed over to them. But a grand jury is currently deciding whether any charges could be brought against the Australian-born hacker for publishing huge amounts of confidential US government data.
Sweden, however, has pursued an extradition request over allegations that Mr Assange sexually assaulted two women in the summer of 2010. The WikiLeaks founder denies the charges but refuses to travel to Sweden to be interrogated because he believes it is part of a wider plot to eventually transfer him to the States. After taking his fight as far as the Surpreme Court he has has now exhausted all legal avenues to halt the extradition.
One of two lawyers representing Mr Assange in those proceedings, Mr Olsson insisted that the WikiLeaks founder would “leave Sweden a free man” if he agreed to face the charges. But he understood why his client had chosen to seek asylum because the threat from the United States “is not just hypothetical”.
Mr Assange’s fate now rests in the hands of Ecuador’s left leaning government who are currently deciding whether to grant him asylum. Even if they do offer him shelter it is unlikely that the WikiLeaks founder will be able to travel to Quito without the agreement of the British. Police say he will be arrested if he leaves embassy property because he has breached his bail conditions.
In an interview by telephone with the Australian Broadcasting Coproration, Mr Assange explained that his decision to flee to Ecuador’s embassy was motivated by concerns that Swedish rposecutors would hold him without charge until the case there was decided. If the United States then applied to extradite him, he would have been unable to claim asylum while he was in prison.
“My ability to exercise an asylum right would be at an end because the Swedes announced publicly that they would detain me in prison without charge while they continue their so-called investigation without charge,” he said.
Asked why he chose Ecuador’s embassy he replied: “We had heard that the Ecaudorians were sympathetic in relation to my struggles and the struggles of [WikiLeaks] with the Unite States and the ability to exercise that option [asylum] was at an effective end.”
Since taking shelter at the Knightsbridge embassy on Tuesday night Mr Asasnge’s actions have been met with a panoply of reactions ranging from support to outright incredulity.
Small groups of supporters have held a vigil outside the embassy whilst others have decried his decision to duck extradition to Sweden. Earlier today one of his most high profile backers said he ought to go to Sweden.
Jemima Khan, who put up some of the £240,000 bail money that now looks forfeited, tweeted yesterday: "For the record, in response to those asking about Assange & bail money… I personally would like to see Assange confront the rape allegations in Sweden and the 2 women at the centre have a right to a response."
She added: “But there is no doubt that Assange has a real fear of being extradited to the US nor that the US gov is out to get WikiLeaks."