News Column

British Police Surround Ecuadorian Embassy

Aug. 16, 2012

Elite British police closed off areas outside Ecuador's Embassy early Thursday ahead of Quito's decision on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's asylum request.

The New York Times reported early Thursday Ecuador was prepared to let Assange stay in the embassy indefinitely under a type of humanitarian protection. The newspaper cited an Ecuadorian government official as saying London made clear it would not let Assange leave the country to travel to Ecuador, so even by granting asylum or similar protection he would probably remain stuck in the embassy.

Ecuadorian officials said they would announce President Rafael Correa's decision at 7 a.m. Quito time (8 a.m. EDT, 1 p.m. in London) Thursday.

The tight surveillance outside the embassy -- with five police vans surrounding the embassy, police tape and tactical officers blocking the embassy's entrance and other police patrolling outside the red-brick building near Harrods department store -- followed a threat by Britain to barge into the embassy if Ecuador did not hand over Assange.

Assange walked into the embassy two months ago in a bid to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault.

Ecuadorian Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters in Quito Wednesday his left-leaning country "received from the United Kingdom an explicit threat in writing that they could assault our embassy in London if Ecuador does not hand over Julian Assange."

"We are not a British colony," he said defiantly after meeting with Correa.

"The move announced in the official British statement, if it happens, would be interpreted by Ecuador as an unfriendly, hostile and intolerable act, as well as an attack on our sovereignty, which would force us to respond in the strongest diplomatic way," Patino told reporters.

"This is a clear breach of international law and the protocols set out in the Vienna Convention," the Ecuadorian Embassy said on its Web site.

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations defines a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It says a host country may not enter the premises of an embassy without the represented country's permission.

The BBC reported Wednesday British officials raised the possibility of revoking the embassy's diplomatic immunity, allowing British officials to enter.

Embassies are not fully exempt from the jurisdiction of the countries they're in and are not sovereign territory of the represented state.

In its letter to Quito, Britain cited the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act as letting it "take actions in order to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy," the letter Patino showed reporters said.

"We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations," said the letter, quoted by the British newspaper The Guardian.

Britain's Foreign Office followed Patino's news conference with a statement saying it had "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."

London is "still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution," the statement said.

Assange has been holed up in the embassy since June 19 in a bid for political asylum in the South American country, to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual molestation, coercion and rape made by two women.

Assange has consistently denied the accusations and suggested they are part of a global conspiracy to silence him. He has not been charged with any crime.

Unconfirmed reports cited by the Times indicate a secret grand jury hearing in Alexandria, Va., was considering a U.S. Justice Department bid to charge Assange with espionage.

Leaked e-mails from Strategic Forecasting Inc., a global intelligence company commonly known as Stratfor, suggest a sealed indictment is ready to be made public when U.S. officials determine the legal proceedings against Assange in Britain and Sweden have come to a close.

Source: Copyright United Press International 2012

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