18 Aug 2012

Americas weigh UK threat to enter Ecuador’s embassy

The Organisation of American States jumps into the diplomatic row over Julian Assange and the inviolability of the Ecuadorian embassy as the WikiLeaks founder prepares to address the crowd on Sunday.

Foreign ministers across the Americas are to meet on Friday to discuss Britain’s threat to revoke the Ecuadorian embassy’s consular status and arrest the 41-year-old WikiLeaks founder for extradition to Sweden.

José Miguel Insulza, OAS secretary general, said ministers will address: “the inviolability of diplomatic missions of all members of this organisation, something that is of interest to all of us.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said Ecuador’s diplomatic immunity should not be used to harbour an alleged criminal. Mr Assange has not be charged but is wanted for questioning in Sweden to answer a rape allegation.

His current home is a cramped office in the 12-room embassy tucked behind Harrods and without access to the outdoors or direct sunlight. Mr Assange is on scheduled to address journalists and supporters on Sunday at the embassy at 2pm, but there may be a limit to what he can say.

Free speech?

“Ecuador, I think, is very cautious here about the fact that not only have they got a dispute with the United Kingdom but there’s also interactions with Sweden, with Australia, with the United States,” said Professor Donald Rothwell, who specialises in international law at the Australian National University in Canberra. “So it’s, I think, not surprising that they’ve perhaps indicated to Julian Assange that he has to be very careful in terms of what he has to say about his circumstances.”

Mr Assange is to give his speech “in front” of the embassy, according to WikiLeaks, causing confusion about whether Mr Assange riskes losing diplomatic immunity if he uses the building’s lobby or stands in the doorway.

Mr Assange – never far from drama or delivering a television soundbite – may instead decide to address the crowd from an open window, a sort-of Eva Peron Argentina-inspired “Don’t cry for me Knightsbridge” rallying speech to supporters. The logistics are the least of Mr Assange’s problems.

Embassy squatters

He’s been inside the embassy for about two months, joining a unique group of embassy squatters that includes two survivors of the military committee known as the Derg in Ethiopia. They have been holed up in the Italian embassy in Addis Ababa since 1991.

Other former shut-ins include ballet dancers, academics, a Tiananmen Square democracy protester, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty. The Cardinal claimed communist persecution and fled to the US embassy in Budapest until he was allowed to leave the country 15 years later in 1971. More recently, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangchen stayed for six days at the US embassy in China before fleeing to New York.

Mr Assange could follow in the Cardinal’s footsteps and wait it out, but the nomadic Australian has already shown his impatience with lengthy legal procedures and life in a gilded cage. He fled a Norfolk farmhouse in June for the Ecuadorian embassy in London after losing his Supreme Court battle to halt his extradition to Sweden. After almost two years under house-arrest in the UK, he has had plenty of time to consider his next move and Sunday’s speech.