LONDON - He's won asylum in Ecuador, but Julian Assange is no closer to getting there.
The decision by the Latin American nation to identify the WikiLeaks founder as a political refugee is a symbolic boost for the embattled ex-hacker. But legal experts said that does little to help him avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations.
Instead, with British officials asserting they won't grant Assange safe passage out of the country, the case has done much to drag the two nations into an international faceoff.
"We're at something of an impasse," British lawyer Rebecca Niblock said. "It's not a question of law anymore. It's a question of politics and diplomacy."
The Australian shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets -- including a quarter-million U.S. Embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats. Amid the ferment, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault; Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.
Threat of unjust prosecution
The convoluted saga took its latest twist Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted political asylum to Assange, who has been holed up inside the nation's small embassy since June 19. He said Ecuador was taking action because Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.
That was a nod to the fears expressed by Assange and others that the Swedish sex case is merely the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States -- something disputed by both Swedish authorities and the women involved.
Ecuador's Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States but was rebuffed by all three. If Assange were extradited to the United States, "he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it's not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty," Patino said.
Ecuador's decision was warmly received by the 41-year-old Assange, who watched as it was announced in a live televised news conference from Quito. In a statement he praised Ecuador's "courage."
Pro-Assange demonstrators gathered outside the embassy building in London and broke into cheers when the news filtered out onto the street.
"It must have been a tough decision for Ecuador because they had pressure," said Alejandra Cazas, an 18-year-old British-Bolivian citizen. "Now they have to watch out that he arrives to Ecuador safely."
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would not allow Assange safe passage to Latin America. "There is no legal basis for us to do so," he said.
He said that Assange was wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of "serious sexual offenses" and that the extradition had nothing to do with the work of WikiLeaks or with the United States.
The issue already seems to have frayed diplomatic ties between Britain and Ecuador. Britain's previous ambassador to Ecuador, Linda Cross, departed earlier this year and had been due to be replaced this month by Patrick Mullee. But his arrival has been delayed.
Ties could fray further if Britain decides to enforce a little-known 1987 law that gives it the right to enter the embassy to arrest Assange -- but most legal experts called such a development unlikely. If Britain carried out such a move "it would threaten their embassy premises around the world," as it could leave them open to reprisals, said Niblock, the lawyer, who practices at London's Kingsley Napley firm.