Sunday 17 November 2019

Backstory: What is Julian Assange doing in the embassy in the first place?

WIKILEAKS founder Julian Assange has been granted political asylum by Ecuador after seeking refuge in the country's embassy in London.

Q. Why has Julian Assange been in the Ecuadorian embassy since June 19?

A. The Australian faces allegations of raping a woman and sexually molesting and coercing another in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 2010 while on a visit to give a lecture. The Swedish authorities have requested that he return there for questioning. Following the failure of his epic legal battle against extradition, Mr Assange sought refuge in Ecuador's Knightsbridge mission and claimed asylum. He and his supporters fear that extradition to Sweden may be followed by transfer to the US over the activities of his whistle-blowing website.

Q. As Julian Assange is an Australian, in the UK, facing charges in Sweden, why has he applied for asylum from the government in Ecuador?

A. Mr Assange has been in contact with politicians in the South American country for some time and interviewed Ecuador's president Rafael Correa in April, during which the leader welcomed him to "the club of the persecuted". Last year Ecuador expelled US ambassador Heather Hodges after Wikileaks released a cable in which she suggested President Correa was aware of corruption allegations against a senior police officer he promoted.

Q. Now that he has been granted asylum, what has changed?

A. From the UK authorities' point of view, very little. The Foreign Office said that the legal duty to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden remains and will be unaffected by the Quito government's decision. The Metropolitan Police said Mr Assange was also in breach of his bail conditions. This means that if he sets foot outside the embassy he is liable to be arrested.

Q. But if he remains inside the embassy, isn't Mr Assange protected from the authorities under international law?

A. It is not quite as straightforward as that. Under the Vienna Convention, diplomatic posts are considered the territory of the foreign nation. But the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 permits the revocation of the special status of a building if the foreign power occupying it "ceases to use land for the purposes of its mission or exclusively for the purposes of a consular post". The Government has made clear to the authorities in Quito that the current situation is "not sustainable" and "incompatible" with the Vienna Convention. This means that potentially Mr Assange could be arrested even if he remained inside the mission.

Q. What does this mean for the UK's relationship with Ecuador?

A. A senior British envoy in Quito has warned the authorities that there would be "serious implications for our diplomatic relations" if the Assange situation continued. This could mean a downgrading of relations or the expulsion of diplomats. Ecuador has accused the UK of making a threat to "attack" its embassy in London to get to Mr Assange. Such a move would be seen as a "hostile and intolerable act", foreign minister Ricardo Patino said.

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