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British police guard Ecuadorean Embassy to prevent Assange escape

LONDON/QUITO/MOSCOW: Julian Assange remained holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London Friday with police guarding its exits, after Britain warned that a diplomatic standoff over the WikiLeaks founder could go on for years.

Ecuador granted asylum Thursday to Assange – whose website enraged the United States by publishing a vast cache of confidential government files – but Britain has vowed not to grant him safe passage out of the country.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government was obliged under its own laws to extradite the Australian national to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sex crimes.

“No one, least of all the government of Ecuador, should be in any doubt that we are determined to carry out our legal obligation to see Mr. Assange extradited to Sweden,” Hague said.

He admitted that the stalemate could continue for months or even years.

Some 20 British police were stationed outside the embassy Friday, ready to arrest 41-year-old Assange if he left the embassy premises.

WikiLeaks condemned the police presence as “intimidation tactics.”

A handful of supporters of the former computer hacker camped overnight outside the embassy in London’s Knightsbridge district.

“We’ll stay here as long as we have to,” 26-year-old protester Baba Gena told AFP.

A couple of activists brought a megaphone along and yelled at police: “Why aren’t you doing your job properly?” and “Put your hands in the air if you believe in freedom of speech!”

Assange has not left the embassy since June 19, when he walked in and claimed asylum.

WikiLeaks said on Twitter that he would give a statement in front of the embassy Sunday, though he did not specify whether this would involve leaving the premises.

Under normal diplomatic procedures, embassies are considered the territory of the countries they represent and cannot be entered without permission.

Britain has angered Ecuador by suggesting it could invoke a domestic law allowing it to breach the usual rules.

Ecuador’s president acknowledged Friday that Assange would remain in Quito’s embassy in London as long as Britain refuses to give him safe passage out of the country.

“The problem is that they aren’t going to give him safe conduct,” Rafael Correa said in a radio interview, adding that “Mr. Assange can stay indefinitely in our embassy.”

Correa contended that European law was “a bit different” from Latin American legal practice, which he said requires the country where the embassy is located to “obligatorily grant safe conduct.”

“In Europe it’s not like that, at least not in the United Kingdom,” he said.

Russia also warned Britain Friday against violating fundamental diplomatic principles after London suggested it could arrest Assange inside Ecuador’s embassy.

“What is happening gives grounds to contemplate the observance of the spirit and the letter of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and in particular the Article 22 spelling out the inviolability of diplomatic premises,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

At the same time, Moscow warned Britain against interpreting the law selectively, stressing that London has given refuge to “dozens of people suspected of committing grave crimes” who are wanted in other countries.

“What to do with a right to refuge for Julian Assange when London turns the observance of this right for this category of people into an absolute principle?” the ministry asked, referring to a number of high-profile figures granted asylum in Britain.

Russia has for years sought the extradition of top Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky as well as several other figures.

Baltasar Garzon, the renowned Spanish lawyer who is helping Assange’s defense, has said the WikiLeaks founder will appeal to the International Court of Justice if Britain does not backtrack and guarantee him safe passage.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told AFP that any bid to enter the embassy would “risk upsetting diplomatic relations all over the world.”

“Hopefully, we will see the decision resolved in a civilized manner,” he said.

A Foreign Office spokesman said Friday that Britain was “committed to working with the Ecuadorans to solve this matter amicably.”

He added: “We will not be commenting on our meetings or contact with them.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 18, 2012, on page 9.

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