Ecuador Grants Assange's Asylum Request

The government of Ecuador on Thursday granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Assange has been holed up at Ecuador's embassy in London for two months while the British government has demanded that he be handed over. He faces questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual misconduct.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

In the latest twist to the WikiLeaks story, its founder Julian Assange has been granted political asylum by the South American nation of Ecuador. Ecuador's foreign minister made the announcement this morning, speaking through a translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICARDO PATINO: (Through translator) The Ecuadorian government is the defending its right to protect Assange, and we have decided to grant political asylum to him.

MONTAGNE: Julian Assange, of course, is the man who infuriated the U.S. government by publishing thousands and thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. At the moment, Assange is in London, at the Ecuadorian embassy, where he sought asylum last June. He did that to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning on claims by two women that he'd sexually assaulted them. And this all took on a dramatic note last night when Ecuador accused the British of threatening to storm their embassy and arrest Assange.

We're joined now from London by NPR's Phil Reeves. And Phil, let's get right to it. Why did Ecuador take this step, granting asylum to Assange?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, the argument of Assange and his lawyers and supporters, broadly speaking, all along has been if he's extradited to Sweden, then he'd then be at risk of being dispatched from there to the United States under an extradition order of some kind, and that his work has always been to expose human rights abuses, corruption, you know, and malpractice by governments, and that the charges against him are politically motivated, and that he would therefore be at the risk of persecution. And rather than get a fair trial and due process, he could wind up in front of a military tribunal. And that could even end in the death penalty. Ecuador appears to have accepted these arguments and, as you say, has given him asylum.

MONTAGNE: So what does this mean, really? I mean, he's in Ecuador, in the most technical sense, right now, in their embassy.

REEVES: Yes, exactly. And that's where it appears he's going to have to stay if he wants to avoid being arrested. He can't go to Ecuador. The British have made that very clear. They said they will not give him rights of passage, and that if he steps outside of the embassy, he would be arrested. So they're arguing that, you know, giving him asylum really makes no difference. They have a binding, legal obligation, they say, to extradite Assange. And they're going to carry that out, they say.

But the real question is: How would they do that? Because, you know, under international law, embassies are supposed to be inviolable areas - you know, in a sense, the territory of the sovereign nation.

MONTAGNE: Right. So is there any likelihood that the British really are going to force their way into the embassy, grab Assange?

REEVES: Well, they have a law, which they cited last night, and that's what's sparked off this big row about Ecuador and the U.K. They have a law, they say, which says that they can revoke an embassy's diplomatic status if the embassy's no longer using that building for the purpose of its mission.

The British say just they're merely just pointing this out to Ecuador. They haven't decided whether to actually act upon that law. But it does obviously raise the question: Would they go in and arrest Assange? And if they did so, we can only imagine that the reaction to that, there would be a huge outcry from Ecuador and from many others, of course, from all of those who support Assange.

MONTAGNE: It seems rather a great irony that it's Ecuador granting Julian Assange asylum, when Ecuador does not have a really stellar reputation for the way it treats journalism and freedom of speech.

REEVES: Yeah, that's true, and it's been pointed out by critics of Assange. But it appears that he and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, get - you know, they get along. When Assange was out on bail, he had his own show on Russian TV. He did a long interview with Correa on that show a while back, and it was very friendly. At one point, Correa welcomed Assange into what he called the club of the persecuted. And it now looks as if that embrace into that club has become an even tighter one.

MONTAGNE: Well, I guess we could say watch this space. Thanks very much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves, speaking to us from London.

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