Ecuador’s Dispute with the United Kingdom and Sweden over Julian Assange: Background

Assange @                      Ecuadorian Embassy
Ecuadorian Embassy, London

On August 16, 2012, the Government of Ecuador granted the petition for asylum submitted by Julian Assange, an Australian national temporarily residing at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, United Kingdom.[1]

Assange, of course, is the individual behind WikiLeaks, the international, online, self-described not-for-profit organization publishing submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks and whistleblowers. In 2010 it obtained many secret U.S. documents and released them to the world through various media outlets.[2]  No U.S. criminal charges have been publicly filed against Assange with respect to the releases of these U.S. government documents, but he fears that such charges secretly have been filed or will be filed and that such charges may seek life imprisonment or the death penalty.[3]

In August 2010 Assange was visiting Sweden, where he allegedly had certain sexual encounters with two Swedish women, who subsequently filed some kind of complaint about these encounters with Swedish authorities. As a result, these authorities have been investigating whether Assange committed rape or some other kind of sexual assault on these women. To pursue that investigation the authorities obtained an European Arrest Warrant to extradite Assange to Sweden for questioning.

In December 2010 Assange, then in Britain, learned about the European Arrest Warrant and voluntarily went to a British police station to advise them of his whereabouts. He immediately was arrested and taken into custody. After a short stay in prison, Assange was freed on bail of  £340,000 (nearly $540,000), of which £ 200,000 was deposited with the court, plus his being confined to  a specific site in Norfolk, England, fitted with an electronic tag and ordered to report to police daily.

Assange then went to the U.K. courts to challenge his extradition to Sweden.  In February 2011, however, a U.K. court upheld the Swedish request, which was affirmed nine months later (November) by the U.K.’s High Court and in May 2012 by the U.K.’s Supreme Court (5 to 2). In addition, that Supreme Court on June 14th denied Assange’s request for a rehearing and ordered that he be extradited to Sweden by July 7th.

Thereafter (on June 19th) Assange somehow violated the terms of his bail and managed secretly to enter the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he filed his claim for asylum.

In the roughly two months between June 19th and Ecuador’s August 16th’s granting of asylum, the governments of Ecuador and the U.K. apparently had private diplomatic exchanges and public sparring over this situation. Especially significant in light of later developments were the following incidents:

  • On August 15th, the U.K. Embassy in Quito apparently delivered a letter to Ecuador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that said: “You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the Embassy.” The letter purportedly also stated, “We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations] and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.”  The latter added, “”We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr. Assange’s presence in your premises, this is an open option for us.”
  • The Ecuadorian government immediately and publicly disclosed some of the contents of the August 15th letter and characterized the statements just quoted as “threats against the sovereignty of the Ecuadorean embassy” and as “a clear breach of international law and the protocols set out in the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations].”
  • In response, the U.K. Foreign Office stated, “The UK has a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offences and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation.” Therefore, “it is only right that we give Ecuador the full picture. Throughout this process we have drawn the Ecuadorians’ attention to relevant provisions of our law, whether, for example, the extensive human rights safeguards in our extradition procedures, or the legal status of diplomatic premises in the UK.” Moreover, the U.K. stated its continued commitment “to reaching a mutually acceptable solution.”
OAS Building, Washington, D.C.

On August 24th, at Ecuador’s request, the Organization of American States (OAS) held an extraordinary Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the dispute. This meeting concluded with a unanimous resolution focused on the inviolability of diplomatic missions under international law. A subsequent post will review this OAS meeting and the legal issue of the status of diplomatic missions in host countries.

Another subsequent post will examine the merits of the Assange asylum claim.

In the meantime, Assange continues to be a full-time “guest” at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

[1] This post is drawn from caches of articles about all of these events in the New York Times and the Guardian.

[2] By happenstance, as reported in a prior post, some of the U.S. government documents released by WikiLeaks were cables from the then U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, to the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. asserting that there were multiple reports of illegal activities by Ecuador’s national police chief and that Ecuador’s President Correa might use these activities to manipulate the police chief. After these cables became public, President Correa called these statements “unacceptable, malicious and imprudent” and expelled Hodges. In retaliation, the U.S. expelled the Ecuadorian Ambassador to the U.S., Luis Gallagos. Both Hodges and Gallagos, in my opinion, are honorable professional diplomats, and neither one did anything wrong.

[3] A U.S. national and member of the U.S. Armed Forces, Bradley Manning, allegedly participated in obtaining these documents for WikiLeaks, and he currently is in U.S. custody facing criminal charges for that alleged conduct. Discussion of the many issues relating to his case is beyond the scope of this post.

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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