How long can Julian Assange stay in the embassy, and could he go to Ecuador? These and other legal questions answered
Q: If Julian Assange remains inside the Ecuadorean embassy, how long can the standoff last?
A: The Foreign Office have confirmed that while he is on diplomatic territory, he is “beyond the reach of the police”. Officers may only enter the building in Knightsbridge if invited inside by embassy officials.
Q: Is there any way the Ecuadoreans can spirit him out of Britain and ensure he reaches the safety of Quito, their capital?
A: If Assange steps out of the embassy, he is liable to be arrested. Were he to be given a diplomatic passport, that would not alter the situation: immunity from arrest is only conferred on diplomats accredited to the Court of St James’s by the Foreign Office.
Any attempt by the Ecuadoreans to have him accredited would be rebuffed by UK authorities. Were Assange to accept an Ecuadorean diplomatic passport, some suggest, he would become an Ecuadorean national – and therefore be unable to seek asylum in what would now be his own country’s embassy. Diplomacy is a cunning profession – dangerously double-edged.
Q: Has there been a similiar act of diplomatic defiance in UK history?
A: The Foreign Office could not recall a recent parallel. Even cases abroad are relatively rare. In 1956, the US granted the Catholic Cardinal József Mindszenty refuge in their Budapest embassy; he stayed for 15 years.
Seven Pentecostalists who burst into the US embassy in Moscow in 1978 seeking asylum remained in its basement until 1983. Six Cubans crashed a bus through the Peruvian embassy gates in Havana in 1980; Peru refused to hand them over whereupon Castro removed security guards from the embassy perimeter, allowing more than 10,000 Cubans to flood into the embassy grounds.
Two of the most recent embassy asylum cases involved refugees from China. In February this year, a police chief entered the US compound but was persuaded to leave after 24 hours. The Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest in his native village and sought sanctuary in the embassy in Beijing. He later flew to the US.
Q: Can the Swedish authorities bring any legal challenge against the Ecuadorean government, forcing them to hand over Assange?
A: It is difficult to see how that might happen. Swedish prosecutors have indicated that they do not wish to become further involved until Assange is flown to Stockholm. The Crown Prosecution Service says that it acts on behalf of the Swedish authorities.
Q: Why is Sweden seeking to extradite Assange to Stockholm when he has not been charged with any offences?
A: In Sweden, it is normal practice for prosecutors to question suspects face-to-face before they are charged. European arrest warrants issued by Sweden against other suspects have run into similar objections – that the suspect being sought has not been charged – in other European countries.
Q: Are the Americans also seeking Assange in connection with his WikiLeaks revelations?
A: It is not known whether there is a sealed indictment against him in the United States. A grand jury has been empanelled in Virginia to consider his case. Any US extradition request, it is assumed, would have to wait until Swedish justice had dealt with Assange.