Media and police surround embassy in west London as both Britain and Sweden protest at asylum decision
Beneath a whirl of police helicopters, freedom of information campaigners and the world’s media gathered around Ecuador’s embassy in Knightsbridge on Thursday to watch the next extraordinary scenes from Julian Assange’s life unfold.
The 41-year-old founder of WikiLeaks, whose notoriety and ability to polarise rarely fails to draw a crowd, was waiting to hear whether he would be granted asylum. He had already spent 54 days in the building as he sought to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct.
His supporters had claimed that any such move could result in him facing a further trial in the United States, and maybe the death penalty, for releasing thousands of damaging internal government documents via his campaigning website.
The decision to grant him asylum came in a televised address by Ricardo Patiño, the foreign minister, who supports Assange’s fears of political persecution, and was greeted with cheers.
“Asylum is a fundamental human right,” Patiño said. “The Ecuadorean government is defending its right to protect Assange and we have decided to grant him political asylum.”
Assange, quick to spot an opportunity for drama, emerged from his room for the first time in weeks to thank officials and journalists, before adding: “Things will get more stressful now.”
Ecuador’s decision leaves the country at loggerheads not just with Britain – which has threatened to revoke the embassy’s diplomatic status and raid the building – but with Sweden, which summoned the Latin American state’s ambassador in protest.
The story began in August 2010, at a time when Assange was beginning to be seen as an important player by activists campaigning for greater freedom of information. His WikiLeaks website was yet to release 251,000 diplomatic cables, which were later printed in a select few media outlets, including the Guardian.
However, he had already been responsible for disclosing footage of airstrikes on citizens in Baghdad and was being lauded as a major figure in international journalism.
On 11 August 2010, Assange arrived in Sweden on a speaking trip partly arranged by “Miss A”, a member of a political party. He had never met her before, but had arranged that he would stay in her apartment while she was out of town. Days later, they reportedly had sex.
Three days later and still in Sweden, Assange met another woman, “Miss W”, at another seminar. Again, he went back to her home and again, they are said to have had sex.
The two women then made contact and discussed aspects of the encounter. Both women reportedly said that what started as consensual sex became non-consensual and that Assange had deceived them about the use of condoms.
On 20 August 2010, Sweden issued an arrest warrant for Assange. Karin Rosander, head of communications for the prosecutor’s office, said there were two separate allegations – one of rape and one of molestation.
Campaigners for Assange claimed that there was a possibility of a bigger conspiracy at work. One message on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed said the group had been warned to expect “dirty tricks” – an allegation that lawyers for the two women say is offensive and wrong.
Soon afterwards, the arrest warrant was temporarily withdrawn, prompting an appeal by lawyers for the two women. In September, the case was reopened, prompting further claims of conspiracy by Assange’s supporters.
The same month, the Stockholm district court approved a request to detain Assange for questioning on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Assange’s British lawyer, Mark Stephens, said his client offered to be interviewed at the Swedish embassy in London or at Scotland Yard or via video, but that the offer had not been taken up.
Two months later, police issued an international arrest warrant for Assange; Interpol soon issued a “red notice” for his detention. Assange was forced to give himself up to police in London and was remanded in custody.
Following the publication of the diplomatic cables in November 2010, Assange’s cause attracted high-profile supporters willing to pay for his defence and bail. Socialite Jemima Khan, film director Ken Loach and publisher Felix Dennis posted bail totalling £200,000 to Westminster magistrates court, with a further £40,000 as promised sureties, to secure the WikiLeaks’ founder’s freedom when he first faced extradition proceedings in 2010.
In February 2011, a UK judge ruled that Assange should return to Sweden.
Assange’s team fought the ruling through successive courts until this June this year when the supreme court dismissed Assange’s bid to reopen his appeal against extradition, branding it “without merit”.
The following week, Assange surprised and angered many of his former supporters by walking into the Ecuadorean embassy and applying for political asylum in breach of his bail conditions.
Khan, who had given £20,000 towards his bail, said on Twitter that the women deserved a response to their allegations.
“For the record, in response to those asking about Assange & bail money … I personally would like to see Assange confront the rape allegations in Sweden and the 2 women at the centre have a right to a response,” she wrote.
Ecuadorean officials say its government has been engaged in ongoing discussions in Quito and London with the British government over Assange’s fate since he entered their embassy. They claim they have sought assurances that he will not be handed over to the US by Sweden or Britain – assurances which have not been given.
On Wednesday, they claim that the British government issued a threat to enter the Ecuadorean embassy to arrest Assange. The Foreign Office says it reminded Ecuador that it has the power to revoke the diplomatic immunity of an embassy on UK soil and says Britain has a legal obligation to extradite him.
The decision to grant asylum is unlikely to end the stand-off over his future as Assange, having breached the terms of his bail, faces arrest as soon as he steps outside the embassy premises.
Other posts from this source: Rajeev Syal, Lizzy Davies