In U.K. threat to Ecuador regarding Assange, experts see mistake

LONDON (AP) — It was a warning meant to remind Ecuador that Britain’s patience has limits. But as the stalemate over Julian Assange settled, it appeared London’s veiled threat that it could storm Ecuador's embassy and drag Assange out has backfired — drawing supporters to the mission where the WikiLeaks founder is holed up and prompting angry denunciations from Ecuador and elsewhere.

Experts and ex-diplomats say Britain’s Foreign Office, which warned Ecuador of a little known law that would allow it to side-step usual diplomatic protocols, messed up by issuing a threat it couldn’t back up.

“It was a big mistake,” said former British ambassador Oliver Miles. “It puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate.”

Britain’s warning was carried in a set of notes delivered to Ecuadorean diplomats Wednesday as they tried to negotiate an agreement over Assange, who has spent nearly two months holed up at the Latin American nation’s London mission in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he’s wanted over allegations of sexual assault.

The notes, published by Britain on Thursday, said ominously that keeping Assange at the embassy was incompatible with international law. They added: “You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. — the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act — which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the embassy.”

Britain passed the law in 1987, after a deadly shooting in 1984 in which a Libyan diplomat opened fire on demonstrators from within his country’s London embassy, killing a British police officer.

The Ecuadoreans were outraged by the notes, accusing Britain of threatening to assault their embassy and calling a crisis meeting of the Union of South American Nations. The ripples from the controversy continued to spread Friday, with Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying in a brief message posted to Twitter that the issue raised questions about diplomatic protections.

Britain’s Foreign Office insists its missive was “not a threat,” something that Miles dismissed with a laugh.

“If I tell you, ‘I’m not threatening you but I DO have a very large stick here,’ it’s a question of semantics,” he said.

Assange, who has been holed up inside Ecuador’s small embassy since June 19, claims the Swedish case is merely the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States — something disputed by both Swedish authorities and the women involved.

In a radio interview Friday, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa said he feared that Assange could face a possible death penalty if he was prosecuted and convicted in the United States.

“I am not in agreement with everything that Julian Assange has done but does that mean he deserves the death penalty, life in prison, to be extradited to a third country? Please! Where is the proportionality between the crime and the punishment? Where is due process?” Correa said.

Correa insisted that his nation was not seeking to undermine Sweden’s attempts to question Assange over allegations made by two women who accuse him of sexual misconduct during a visit to the country in mid-2010.

“The main reason why Julian Assange was given diplomatic asylum was because his extradition to a third country was not guaranteed, in no way was it done to interrupt the investigations of Swedish justice over an alleged crime. In no way,” Correa said.

Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who is representing Assange pro bono, would not disclose his legal team’s next steps now that Britain has refused safe passage.

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