Ecuador offers political asylum to Assange

Updated: 2012-08-17 06:49


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Ecuador offers political asylum to Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in this December 5, 2011 file photo. [Photo/Agencies]

QUITO - Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Thursday his country has decided to grant asylum to WikiLeaks website founder Julian Assange after finding merit to his claim of being politically persecuted.

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"Ecuador, faithful to its tradition of protecting those who seek a safe haven in its territory or its diplomatic missions, has decided to grant political asylum to the citizen Julian Assange," said Patino at a morning press conference.

The decision came only one day after the British government threatened to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London to seize Assange and extradite him to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in two sexual assault cases.

Assange, who has not been charged of any crime and maintained that his relations with the two were consensual, on Thursday called the offer by Ecuador a "significant victory."

The 41-year-old Australian, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy since June 19, claimed that Sweden intends to hand him over to the United States, where he may face espionage charges for leaking thousands of secret US diplomatic cables and, if convicted, could be given the death penalty.

Patino said "The judicial evidence clearly shows that if extradited to the United States, Mr. Assange would not have a fair trial, he could be tried by special or military courts," adding that the Ecuador's decision complied with the fundamental principles of international humanitarian.

"It is not improbable that he would be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment, condemned to life imprisonment or the death penalty, by which his human rights would not be respected," Patino added.

Human rights activists have denounced the US government for its treatment of US soldier Bradley Manning, who provided WikiLeaks with numerous secret military documents, saying the conditions under which he is being incarcerated are tantamount to torture.

Immediately after the announcement of the asylum offer, a spokeswoman with Britain's Foreign Office said Britain would continue to pursue its "obligation" to extradite Assange to Sweden despite Ecuador's decision.

"Under our law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," the spokeswoman said.

"We remain committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act," she said.

Almost simultaneously, Sweden rejected Ecuador's claim that Assange would not face a fair trial.

"Our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone. We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary," Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt posed on his Twitter account.

The Organization of American States (OAS) called for an emergency meeting that will be held in Washington at 4:30 pm (2030 GMT) to discuss the escalating diplomatic row between Britain and Ecuador shortly after Ecuador's announcement.

Assange's WikiLeaks website has enraged the United States by releasing tens of thousands of secret documents about the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was arrested in London in December 2010 on a warrant from Sweden and then released on a bail.

While fighting extradition and before seeking refuge in Ecuador's London embassy, Assange was under house arrest outside the British capital.