WikiLeaks’ Assange Flees to Ecuadorian Embassy

With just nine days left before he is set to be extradited to Sweden, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has applied for political asylum with Ecuador.

Assange appeared in person at the Ecuadorian embassy in London on Tuesday seeking protection and will remain there until Ecuadorian authorities rule on his application for asylum, according to a statement from the embassy.

“The decision to consider Mr Assange’s application for protective asylum should in no way be interpreted as the Government of Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of either the United Kingdom or Sweden,” the embassy said in the statement.

According to a separate statement from Ecuador’s foreign ministry, Assange asserted that Australia, his native country, appeared to have no plans to protect him, which put him in a state of “helplessness.” He was therefore asking Ecuador to provide him with asylum.

Ecuador is “evaluating the request of Mr. Julian Assange and any decision on it will take into account respect for the rules and principles of international law and the traditional policy of Ecuador to safeguarding human rights,” Ecuadorian officials said in the statement.

Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, the second clause of the article states that “the right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

Ecuador and the UK voted in favor of the UDHR, and it has the status of international law.

Assange, however, is not accused of political crimes. He is being sought for questioning in Sweden on rape and coercion allegations stemming from separate sexual relations he had with two women in that country in August 2010. One woman told police that Assange pinned her down to have sex with her and that she suspected he intentionally tore a condom he wore. The second woman reported that he had sex with her while she was initially asleep, failing to wear a condom despite repeated requests for him to do so. Assange was in the country applying for residency so that he might benefit from Sweden’s strong press protection laws.

Assange has denied any wrongdoing, asserting that the sex in both cases was consensual.

He was ordered to return to Sweden last week to face the allegations after the UK Supreme Court rejected a bid to re-open his appeal case there. The judges gave him a two-week reprieve before extradition proceedings would begin, saving him from being immediately ejected from the country.

It’s unclear whether his holding up in the Ecuadorian embassy would make him a fugitive triggering a warrant for his immediate arrest. A spokesman for the Metropolitan police reached late in the evening in London on Tuesday told Wired that authorities would likely be evaluating the situation in the morning.

“Generally speaking, if someone does breach their bail conditions, then they become liable to arrest,” spokesman Simon Fisher said. “It depends on if and when he breaches the parameters of his bail conditions.”

Assange was freed on $300,000 bail in Dec. 2010, with conditions. He had to surrender his passport, agree to travel restrictions, adhere to a curfew and wear an electronic tracking device. He is required to report into a local police station by 10pm each evening in Kent, the neighborhood where he has been living. It’s unclear, if he failed to report to police Tuesday evening after seeking refuge in the Ecuador embassy, if that would qualify as violating his bail conditions.

U.S. documentary filmmaker Michael Moore contributed $20,000 to Assange’s bail. British heiress Jemima Khan and other celebrities also reportedly offered to cover his bail at the time. It’s unclear what the status of that bail money would be if Assange is granted asylum in Ecuador. In a Twitter exchange with the deputy editor of the Guardian newspaper in London, Khan acknowledged she had put up some of Assange’s bail money and said that she had expected Assange “to face the allegations.”

“I am as surprised as anyone by this,” she wrote in a tweet.

Assange failed to make an appearance at a Supreme Court hearing two weeks ago when the court was scheduled to rule on his appeal. According to reports on Twitter from people who had spoken with him that morning, he said he was caught in traffic, prompting speculation that he might have been preparing to flee to avoid being taken into custody immediately by court authorities.

Assange’s defense team has claimed that the Swedish government is acting on behalf of the US to extradite Assange to Sweden so that he could be further extradited to the US to face criminal charges related to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of documents from the Afghan and Iraq wars, as well as US diplomatic cables.

But UK prosecutor Clare Montgomery, who was in an early court proceeding representing Swedish authorities, said that even if the US requested extradition of Assange from Sweden, no such extradition could take place without consent from UK authorities.

Sweden announced last week that Assange will be imprisoned after he is handed over to Swedish authorities and will have a court hearing four days after extradition from the United Kingdom to decide if he will stay in custody.

Update 5:20 pm EST:To add comment from Metropolitan Police spokesman.

Additional reporting by Juha Saarinen