Ecuador grants asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño announced Thursday that his country would be granting political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, on the grounds the country believes he will be politically persecuted if he is extradited from Great Britain to Sweden.

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Assange, who turned himself in to British authorities in 2010, has been staying at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly two months. The British government is seeking to extradite him to Sweden, where he was accused of rape and sexual molestation two years ago. 

Assange denies the allegations against him by two female former WikiLeaks volunteers. He believes the charges to have come in retaliation for his organization’s release of classified U.S. documents and diplomatic cables.

Assange was released on bail and placed under house arrest on condition that he spend nights at the home of a supporter outside of London, but London’s Metropolitan Police argue that he has broken the terms of his bail by staying at the embassy.

Prior to the announcement, Patiño declared that the Ecuadorian government had received written notice from the British government stating their intentions to “assault” the embassy if Ecuador refused to hand Assange over. Patiño argued that doing so would violate international law, which holds that an embassy is the sovereign ground of the country to which it belongs.

Patiño, who spoke at a televised news conference from his country’s capital, Quito, justified Ecuador’s decision by describing Assange as an “activist” for freedom of the press and freedom of expression. 

If Assange is extradited, he argued, there is no guarantee he would receive a fair trial if sent to Sweden. Patiño said that Ecuador had asked Sweden to promise that it would not extradite Assange to the United States, but it refused.

Britain’s government said it will not give safe passage to Assange, who is Australian. A spokesman for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office called Ecuador’s decision “regrettable,” and said that the United Kingdom was still obliged to extradite Assange.

“The Ecuadorian government's decision this afternoon does not change that," the spokesman said in statement cited by CNN.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stressed the United States was not taking any role in the dispute.  

"This is an issue between the Ecuadorans, the Brits, the Swedes … it is an issue among the countries involved, and we're not planning to interject ourselves," Nuland said. “My information is that we have not involved ourselves in this."

- This story was updated at 2:30 p.m.