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WikiLeaks Founder Caught In Diplomatic Standoff


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with a diplomatic standoff. Ecuador has granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Assange has been holed up in Ecuador's small embassy in London for eight weeks trying to avoid being extradited to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual assault. Now, he can't leave. British authorities say they'll arrest him if he steps foot outside the embassy. They've also issued a rare warning to Ecuador. To arrest Assange, they say, they might even enter the embassy. NPR's Philip Reeves has our story.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The announcement came in Ecuador's capital, Quito.

RICARDO PATINO: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Assange will be granted asylum, said Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino to a packed press conference. The audience was delighted.


REEVES: That merriment was not shared by Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague.

WILLIAM HAGUE: It does not change the fundamentals of the case. We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom nor is there any legal basis for us to do so.

REEVES: Assange's supporters fear that if he's sent to Sweden, he will then be extradited to the U.S. They're worried that he'll be tried for espionage over the publication by WikiLeaks of many thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. They believe Assange will be denied a fair trial in America and is even at risk of execution. Ecuador's government, a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy, has concluded that these fears are justified.

Outside Ecuador's London embassy, a big crowd of journalists and Assange supporters is gathered to see what happens next. The police watch on warily, and after a scuffle, arrest a couple of pro-Assange demonstrators. A waiting game has begun. Britain says Ecuador's decision makes no difference. It has a binding obligation to extradite Assange, and it's going to do that, it says. The issue now is how and when.

Under international law, embassies worldwide are treated as if they're sovereign territory of the nations occupying them. The security services of the host nation can't just enter and arrest someone. However, Britain is now brandishing another law that it passed in the 1980s. That says it can revoke the embassy building's diplomatic status if that building is not being used purely for diplomatic purposes. British Foreign Minister William Hague again.

HAGUE: The harboring of alleged criminals or frustrating the due legal process in a country, in the host state, is not a permitted function of diplomats under the Vienna Convention.

REEVES: Just before Ecuador announced that it has granted asylum to Assange, Britain sent its government a note about this law. This was a warning from the British government that at some point it might decide to send the British police into the embassy to arrest Assange. Ecuador was furious. It saw this as a threat to storm its London embassy in violation of international law. That note is causing controversy within Britain. Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, says acting on it would set a dangerous precedent.

TONY BRENTON: You expose British and other diplomats everywhere to similar treatment, and that makes the whole profession much more insecure. It makes it much more difficult to do normal business between nations.

REEVES: Some experts argue that acting on the British law would be illegal as it would violate international law that guarantees the diplomatic sanctity of embassies. These include Lord Alex Carlile, one of Britain's top legal experts.

LORD ALEX CARLILE: In my view, as a matter of law, we can't just go barging in to the embassy of Ecuador. It is immune from entry by the British authorities. So I'm afraid the patience will have to continue. Mr. Assange has nowhere to go, and when he does eventually emerge, he will be arrested and he'll be extradited to Sweden.

REEVES: The big question is how long can this standoff last? Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.