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You're reading: WikiLeaks founder seeks asylum at Ecuador embassy

LONDON — WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange has made a run for the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, seeking asylum in a long shot move that, if successful, would place him in a small, friendly South American country rather than in Sweden facing questioning about alleged sex crimes.

Tuesday’s
unexpected caper has added a new and bizarre twist to Assange’s
increasingly desperate bid to avoid extradition to Scandinavia.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said the leftist government
of President Rafael Correa — an administration often at odds with
Washington — was weighing the request, although he did not indicate when
a decision might be made.

Assange said in a brief statement that
he was grateful “to the Ecuadorean ambassador and the government of
Ecuador for considering my application.”

Assange’s legal options
in the U.K. had almost completely run out. Less than a week ago
Britain’s Supreme Court re-endorsed its decision to allow the
40-year-old’s extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted over sex crimes
allegations. The accusations — which stem from Assange’s trip to the
country in mid-2010 — have cast a cloud over his online organization’s
spectacular leaks of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence
material.

Ecuador — where less than one in three people have
access to the Web — may seem an unlikely place for the former computer
hacker to seek refuge, but in many ways it’s an obvious choice.

“It’s
one of the few countries that has given a great opening to Assange’s
entire cause,” said Grace Jaramillo, an international relations
professor at Ecuador’s FLACSO university.

“Correa sees Assange as a critic of the status quo,” he said. “He has been challenging the United States and Correa likes that.”

Assange
argues that extradition to Sweden is a first step in efforts to remove
him to the United States, where he claims to have been secretly indicted
over his disclosure of 250,000 State Department cables. He has spent
the better part of two years fighting the move through the British
courts.

But legal experts said Assange’s flight to the Ecuadorean embassy was a desperate one.

U.K.
extradition specialist Karen Todner said she couldn’t make sense of the
move, while Michael Scharf, based at the Case Western Reserve
University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio, said he didn’t believe
Assange could be given asylum status.

“I think they are going to end up asking him to leave the premises,” said Scharf.

Ecuador’s
mission in London said in a statement that Assange would “remain at the
embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorean government,” while his
application was considered. Britain’s foreign ministry said it was
working with Ecuadorean authorities to resolve the situation, but gave
few other details.

Aside from Assange’s brief statement, WikiLeaks
did not elaborate on its leader’s plans. Nearly a dozen calls, texts
and emails seeking further comment from WikiLeaks and its staff weren’t
returned.

Patino, speaking at a news conference in Quito, the
Ecuadorean capital, gave the fullest account of Assange’s reasoning,
saying he had personally written to Correa to ask for asylum.

Assange,
who is Australian, had argued that “the authorities in his country will
not defend his minimum guarantees before any government or ignore the
obligation to protect a politically persecuted citizen.” Patino said.
That may be a reference to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who
last month said that her country could not protect Assange from other
countries’ justice systems.

Ecuador has made friendly noises about
Assange in the past. In the November 2010, at the height of the media
storm over WikiLeaks’ disclosures, its government appeared to offer him
sanctuary, and on Assange’s newly-launched television talk show — which
interviewed Correa via videolink earlier this year — the pair swapped
jokes and messages of encouragement.

It was during the interview
that Assange received an offer of asylum, according to a woman who was
present during the shows and familiar with the offer. She spoke on
condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the
media.

It was not immediately clear if the offer came directly
from the president himself, although at one point Correa saluted
WikiLeaks and told Assange to take courage.

“Welcome to the club
of those who are persecuted!” said Correa, whose government has been
assailed by human rights and press freedom activists for using Ecuador’s
criminal libel law in sympathetic courts against journalists from the
country’s biggest newspaper, El Universo.

Assange and his allies
had been in discussions over a possible attempt to seek sanctuary in
Ecuador since last weekend, according to a person familiar with the
matter.

“His concern was that once he arrived in Sweden he would
be held in custody and would not have a chance to seek sanctuary again,”
the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitivity of the case.

The person claimed that Assange had
explained his reasons for seeking sanctuary to those who put up bail,
but Jemima Khan, a celebrity journalist who supports Assange, said she
was caught off guard by the news.

“I had expected him to face the allegations,” she said in a message posted to Twitter. “I am as surprised as anyone by this.”

It
wasn’t immediately clear whether the escape to the Ecuadorean Embassy
would invalidate Assange’s strict bail conditions, or whether the
200,000 pounds (roughly $315,000) put up by his supporters would be
forfeited.

British officials declined to say whether Assange had skipped bail or whether they were now seeking his arrest.

Assange
will be free from U.K. authorities so long as he remains at the
Ecuadorean Embassy, but it’s unclear how he could hope to get from the
mission, based in London’s wealthy Knightsbridge neighborhood, to
Ecuador itself.

The embassy’s buzzer rang unanswered Tuesday,
although several times an unidentified figure peeked out from behind the
curtain to look at reporters clustered around the building’s entrance.

At
one point two men emerged from the building; neither addressed the
assembled media, but one bore a folio entitled “Diplomatic Law.”

Claes
Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the two Swedish women with claims
against Assange, told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter late Tuesday that
Assange’s latest move was a delaying tactic.

“It’s tragic for the two clients that I represent,” he was quoted as saying. “I can’t imagine that this will lead anywhere.”

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