Ecuador grants asylum to Julian Assange, who is holed up in Ecuador's London embassy
British police refuse to grant Wikileaks founder safe passage out of country
Whiteway: No precedent in UK for entering another country's embassy
Whiteway: Such a move would further damage Ecuador-UK relations
Ecuador has granted Julian Assange asylum out of concern the Wikileaks founder will be politically persecuted if extradited.
The decision is a victory for Assange, who is trying to avoid being extradited to Sweden and has been holed up inside Ecuador’s embassy in London for nearly two months.
But the bad news for Assange is that British police have refused to grant him safe passage out of the country.
The British government has pledged to send Assange to Sweden to face questioning on sex crimes charges, but Ecuador’s foreign minister says if Assange is sent to Sweden, he could then be extradited to the United States to face charges of espionage or treason.
Assange and his supporters say a U.S. grand jury is weighing charges against him. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice Department has an “active, ongoing criminal investigation” into the WikiLeaks disclosure of classified U.S. diplomatic documents.
CNN spoke to Paul Whiteway, an ex-British diplomat of more than 30 years and now director of the Independent Diplomat advisory group in London, about where the Assange situation is heading.
CNN: Can Assange leave London?
Paul Whiteway: The fact Ecuador has granted political asylum to Assange doesn’t actually make any real difference. Clearly he is not in Ecuador, he is in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and for the time being he is able to remain there without being arrested. But he can’t get to Ecuador without leaving the embassy without being arrested, so in a sense, it’s a standoff.
CNN: Could Assange escape by car or by plane?
Whiteway: It’s very unlikely. The embassy only occupies a part of the building, and is not a compound embassy, which has a car park inside it. Vehicles belonging to the embassy enjoy a degree of immunity, so if it was a compound embassy, he could get into the car, which could in theory take him out of the building.
But at some point it would have to stop, and he would have to get out of the car and into an airplane, whereupon he would be arrested. But Ecuador’s is not a compound embassy, so as soon as he steps out the door he is liable to be arrested.
Immunity would in theory apply to an Ecuadorian airplane, but that plane would have to have permission to land that the British government would not give. It’s really hard to see how that could work.
Also, that sort of subterfuge would be regarded as such a blatant disregarding of the convention on diplomatic relations that the bilateral relationship between Britain and Ecuador would mean even further damage to Ecuador’s interests in the UK.
CNN: Is there anything British police can do?
Whiteway: All they can do is wait and watch. In theory the foreign secretary could make use of a 1987 act of Parliament to end to the inviolability of the Ecuadorian embassy, but this would take authorities into a gray area.
Theoretically, this legislation is to be invoked in cases connected to public safety, national security, or town and country planning. Clearly Assange fits into none of those categories, and it’s unlikely the British police will be going into the embassy anytime soon.
CNN: Is there a precedent for marching into another country’s embassy?
Whiteway: While authorities could theoretically test the 1987 law, I can’t think of any instance in this country where a government entered the premises of a mission (embassy) without permission from the head of the mission.
The reasons for that are clear: Britain doesn’t want to have itself in a situation where foreign governments can just march into its embassies overseas and arrest people. Diplomatic relations are established on the basis of reciprocity, and that is very important.
CNN: How have Britain and Ecuador handled the Assange issue?
Whiteway: In Britain, I suspect that in the Foreign Office there may be a slight sense of regret that they included a paragraph in their letter (to Ecuador) about the 1987 law (informing officials they had the legal wherewithal to enter the embassy and take Assange), because clearly it stung the Ecuadorians in a way.
But I think it was always going to be a long haul to get this issue resolved, given that President Rafael Correa is quite sympathetic to what Julian Assange stands for; given that he had already been on the record publicly saying he was in favour of granting Assange asylum. It was always going to be difficult for him to walk away from that without losing face.
CNN: Can Assange stay in the embassy forever?
Whiteway: I don’t think Mr. Assange is going to be going anywhere, let alone Ecuador, for the time being. There was the case in Hungary of the bishop who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy for 15 years, so some cases can take literally years to resolve.
CNN: What will the atmosphere be like in the embassy?
Whiteway: I’m sure they will have made him as comfortable as possible in the circumstances as they possible can. But it’s a big distraction from their day job, and it’s awkward having someone who’s not on the diplomatic staff actually inside your embassy for any length of time, let alone for periods of months, so there is a price to pay from the embassy’s point of view.
Information from CNN Wires was used in this report.