17 Aug 2012

Diplomatic impasse: what are Assange’s options?

Channel 4 News looks at the choices available to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as the diplomatic impasse continues between Britain and Ecuador over his extradition to Sweden.

Protestors outside the Ecuador embassy in West London (Reuters)

In a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning over sexual assault allegations, Julian Assange sought asylym at Ecuador’s west London embassy. The country’s decison to grant him political asylum has put it at odds with the UK government which says it has a duty to ensure he is extradited to Scandinavia.

Mr Assange’s decision to seek asylum at the Ecuador embassy has struck some commentators as a curious move, given that country’s worsening record of press freedom. Nevertheless, the embassy is currently at the centre of attempts to persuade the WikiLeaks founder to acquiesce to demands for him to leave its protection and face extradition.

Extradition lawyer Anand Doobay told Channel 4 News there are broadly three options available to Mr Assange: “The first is that he remains at the Ecuador embassy indefinitely,” he said.

“The second relates to his concern that should he be sent to Sweden, he could face extradition to the US. There has been communication between Sweden, Ecuador, the US and the UK to try and seek some sort of assurance that he would not be sent to the US if he were to stand trial in Sweden. If this were to work, it would have to be negotiated to the satisfaction of Ecuador so that it was satisfied it no longer needed to offer him protection.

“Even if he were to be extradited to Sweden, the UK home secretary would have to consent to his being extradited to the US. And because of that, he could challenge any decision of the Home Secretary in the UK courts.”

Diplomatic pouch

Mr Doobay says another option is one which would rest on the UK recognising the terms under which Ecuador is holding Mr Assange: “”The third option is safe passage. Ecuador believes he should be allowed to travel to the airport in order to fly to Ecuador. The UK has rejected this outright because it doesn’t recognise the concept under which this is being proposed, that of “diplomatic asylum”.

“This is a practice that’s more common in the US and South America and the UK has said it does not recognise it. It means that asylum is granted in the embassy of one country rather than granting political asylum, which would ordinarily happen when someone actually flees to that country,” Mr Doobay told Channel 4 News.

Another possibility, suggested not completely seriously, is that Mr Assange leaves the embassy in a “diplomatic pouch” – i.e. he is moved as diplomatic luggage. Although seemingly absurd, there are precedents for human cargo being moved under the aegis of an embassy or consulate.

In 1984, Umaru Dikko a former Nigerian government minister, fled the country after a coup and was living in the UK. He was kidnapped and drugged, with the plan being to smuggle him back to Nigeria in a crate to be designated as diplomatic luggage.

Had the documentation been correct, the luggage would not have been inspected under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic relations, but as the crate was not labelled diplomatic baggage it did not have this protection from scrutiny, so customs officials opened the cargo and Mr Dikko and his captor were found, foiling the kidnap attempt.