Julian Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London as the UK seeks to extradite him to Sweden, has been granted asylum by Ecuador despite UK warnings that Assange would be arrested anyway.
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino made the announcement that WikiLeaks founder Assange's request for asylum had been granted on Thursday from the Ecuadorian capital, Quito.
Assange took refuge at Ecuador's embassy in London on June 19 after losing a legal battle against extradition to Sweden. He is wanted for questioning there over allegations of sexual assault and rape, charges which he denies.
"The Ecuador government, loyal to its tradition to protect those who seek refuge with us at our diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr. Assange," Patino said at a news conference.
The 41-year-old Assange has expressed fears that Sweden will eventually extradite him to the United States, where he faces charges over WikiLeaks' publishing of thousands of secret US documents, many of which included information pertaining to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Stockholm, for its part, has said that Assange would receive a fair trial in Sweden in conformity with the Scandinavian nation's constitution.
"Our firm legal and constitutional system guarantees the rights of each and everyone. We firmly reject any accusations to the contrary," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his Twitter account.
Patino said that Ecuador had recognized Assange's fears of extradition to the US as legitimate.
"If he were extradited to the United States, Mr. Assange would not receive a fair trial (and) could be judged by special tribunals or military courts," the Ecuadorian foreign minister said.
"It is not implausible that he would be subjected to cruel and degrading treatment and be condemned to life in prison or capital punishment."
The stage is now set for a diplomatic row between Ecuador and the UK.
At a news conference in Quito on Wednesday, Patino hit back at a letter he said he had received from the UK government, which threatened to raid the embassy if Assange was not handed over.
"The move announced in the official British statement, if it happens, would be interpreted by Ecuador as an unfriendly, hostile and intolerable act, as well as an attack on our sovereignty, which would force us to respond in the strongest diplomatic way," Patino told reporters.
"We want to be very clear, we're not a British colony. The colonial times are over," the foreign minister said.
Embassy immunity jeopardized
British police remain stationed outside the embassy ready to arrest Assange for breaching the terms of his bail, which was granted in 2010.
"We are disappointed by the statement from Ecuador's foreign minister, that Ecuador has offered political asylum to Julian Assange," a British Foreign Office spokesman said on Thursday.
"Under UK law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation," the spokesman added.
Later, British Foreign Secretary William Hague repeated Britain's determination to extradite Assange.
"We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so," Hague said at a news conference in London. "The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum."
Hague also said that the diplomatic row between Britain and Ecuador could go on for some time. He emphasized there were no plans to storm the embassy where Assange remains holed up.
The Foreign Office had warned on Wednesday that the embassy's diplomatic status could be revoked if necessary. The law in question, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, would allow the UK to annul the diplomatic immunity of an embassy on UK soil.
mz, ccp, bm / slk (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)