British police stood poised Wednesday to arrest WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should he step out of Ecuador’s London embassy – but authorities conceded he is beyond their grasp as long as he stays inside. Assange says he is seeking political asylum at the South American nation’s diplomatic mission.
Police said that he had violated the terms of his bail, which include an overnight curfew, and “is now subject to arrest.” Police officers were stationed outside the Edwardian apartment block in the tony Knightsbridge district that houses the embassy, along with small group of pro-Assange protesters waving “Free Assange” placards.
Telephones at the embassy went unanswered Wednesday.
The Foreign Office said as long as Assange remains inside, he is “beyond the reach of police.” “We will seek to work with the Ecuadorean authorities to resolve this situation as soon as possible,” it said in a statement.
The 40-year-old Australian took refuge in the embassy a few doors down from the Harrods department store on Tuesday. He said he was seeking political asylum in Ecuador, whose leftist President Rafael Correa has previously offered words of support. Ecuador said Assange would “remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorean government” while authorities in the capital, Quito, considered his case.
Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 at Sweden’s request. Since then he has been fighting extradition to the Scandinavian country, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual assaults on two women in 2010. He denies the allegations and says the case against him is politically motivated. He also claims extradition could be a first step in efforts to remove him to the United States, where he claims to have been secretly indicted over his website’s disclosure of 250,000 State Department cables. The leaks of the secret diplomatic exchanges deeply angered the U.S. government.
Asked about the case at a Geneva press conference, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said Assange was not being victimized. “I don’t think he’s being persecuted because of his use of the Internet at all,” she said.
She said that “getting too enamored with the idea that Julian Assange is a whistleblower missed the reality that confidentiality on the part of governments is not all bad.”
“In many cases it is used to protect people and that must be balanced along with the preference for free flow of information,” she said.
Assange had all but run out of legal options in Britain, where the Supreme Court last week affirmed an earlier decision that he should be sent to Sweden. He could still apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. His lawyers have said they are considering doing that.
The asylum bid took many Assange supporters by surprise – including some of those who put up a total of 200,000 pounds ($315,000) to guarantee his bail. Vaughan Smith, the former journalist who let Assange stay at his rural English home for more than a year as part of his bail terms, said the news “came as surprise to me.”
Smith said he stood to lose his 20,000 pound surety, but defended Assange nonetheless. “This is money my family needs,” Smith said. “But my family don’t believe they are facing life imprisonment or death. I am convinced (Assange) genuinely believes he will be sent to America and will face something terrible there.”
Some legal experts said they were mystified by the reasoning behind Assange’s dramatic asylum bid. But human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, a former member of Assange’s legal team, said he could be planning to bargain with Sweden for assurances that he would not be handed over to the U.S. She said if granted such assurances, Assange might be willing to go to Sweden voluntarily.