South America condemns UK 'threats' over Assange
by Daniel Mason
The diplomatic dispute surrounding Julian Assange has widened after the Union of South American Nations criticised the United Kingdom's alleged threat to enter Ecuador's London embassy to arrest the Wikileaks founder. It came after Assange called for an end to the "witch-hunt" against his organisation.
Ecuador, which granted political asylum to Assange last week, claimed that the UK foreign office sent a letter warning that it had the legal right under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 to revoke the embassy's diplomatic status in order to make the arrest.
But after a meeting yesterday, foreign ministers from the 12-nation South American UNASUR bloc said that they "strongly condemn the threat of the use of force between states" and called for the "full observance of the principles enshrined in international law". They said the two sides should "continue dialogue and direct negotiations in search of a mutually acceptable" solution.
The UK government later said it did not intend to storm the embassy but maintained that it has a legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault. Assange denies the claims and sought refuge in the embassy in June after appeals against his extradition failed. British police are stationed outside the building ready to arrest him if he steps outside.
Ecuador granted him asylum because the UK and Sweden failed to give guarantees that they would not allow Assange to be extradited to the United States, which is investigating Wikileaks in relation to the release of secret diplomatic cables. Assange's supporters believe he could face life imprisonment or the death penalty in the US.
Speaking from a balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy yesterday, Assange called on US President Barack Obama to end the "witch-hunt" against Wikileaks. "As Wikileaks stand under threat, so does freedom of expression and the health of all of our societies," he said.
Assange made no mention of the sexual assault allegations against him. He called for the release of 24-year-old Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking secret military documents to Wikileaks, whose trial is due to begin in September. He has been in pre-trial detention for more than 800 days.
Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino, speaking after the UNASUR meeting in Guayaquil, said it would be possible for Assange to go to Sweden if "talks with Britain, Sweden, or the United States could lead to a clear written statement guaranteeing his life and safety".
The UK foreign office has made no further comment since Assange's speech. Last week, after Ecuador announced it had granted asylum, foreign secretary William Hague said: "The British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We must carry out that obligation and of course we fully intend to do so." He added that the case was "not about Mr Assange's activities at Wikileaks or the attitude of the United States of America. He is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offences."