Lawyer: Raid on Embassy to Arrest Assange Would Be “Unprecedented” Breach of Diplomatic Immunity

Democracy Now*

Julian Assange

HAVANA TIMES — Britain is refusing to give Julian Assange of WikiLeaks safe passage out of the country even though Ecuador has granted him political asylum. On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assange would be arrested if he left the embassy.

Britain has also threatened to raid the embassy in order to arrest Assange. “Under British law we can give them a week’s notice before entering the premises and the embassy will no longer have diplomatic protection,” said a British foreign spokesperson.

In response, Ecuador has asked the Organization of American States to hold a meeting Aug. 23 to discuss the diplomatic crisis. “The latest announcements by the British government are alarming,” said Jennifer Robinson, legal adviser for Julian Assange.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show on the latest on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Britain is refusing to give Assange safe passage out of the country even though Ecuador has granted him political asylum. Assange remains inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has stayed for almost two months in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over sex crime accusations. Assange’s lawyers say he fears Sweden will extradite him to the United States to face charges over the leaking of secret U.S. military and diplomatic files. On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assange would be arrested if he left the embassy.

WILLIAM HAGUE: We are disappointed by the statement by Ecuador’s foreign minister today that Ecuador has offered political asylum to Julian Assange. Under our law, with Mr. Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, 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. The Ecuadorean government’s decision this afternoon does not change that in any way, nor does it change the current circumstances in any way. We remain committed to a diplomatic solution that allows us to carry out our obligations as a nation under the Extradition Act. It’s important to understand that this is 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 offenses.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Britain has also threatened to raid the embassy in order to arrest Assange. A British foreign spokesperson said, quote, “Under British law we can give them a week’s notice before entering the premises and the embassy will no longer have diplomatic protection.”

The British threat was condemned by Ecuadorean officials as well as former diplomats. Sir Anthony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, told the BBC that a British breach of diplomatic immunity would, quote, “make the world a very different place,” with diplomats everywhere vulnerable to punitive action by host governments.

Meanwhile, Ecuador has asked the Organization of American States to hold a meeting August 23rd to discuss the diplomatic crisis.

Numerous supporters of Assange have gathered outside Ecuador’s embassy in recent days. This is Paul Madrid.

PAUL MADRID: [translated] We believe that the decision taken by the Ecuadorean government is the correct one. We Ecuadoreans abroad very much agree with this. We support the government’s decision, which is a decision taken on the basis of human rights and international commissions that support this type of petition.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the significance of these developments, we are going to go first to Jennifer Robinson, London-based legal adviser for Julian Assange, also director of legal advocacy at the Bertha Foundation.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jennifer. The significance of the Ecuadorean government granting political asylum to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, and then, what Britain is threatening now?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: This is obviously a hugely important decision by Ecuador and one that we both welcome and respect, in light of the recent pressure that’s been brought to bear on them by the British government. It is an important recognition of international law and important recognition of the persecution that Julian faces, and in particular the concerns that we’ve long had about his—the risk of his extradition to the United States and prosecution associated with his activities to do with WikiLeaks.

The latest announcements by the British government are alarming, I think, for diplomats around the world in relation to their threat about entering the embassy. This raises significant concerns about the institution of asylum, and about diplomatic protection, more generally. As international law academics and experts have been saying in the past 24 hours, it would be illegal as a matter of international law to enter an embassy. They are inviolable. And unless and until they withdraw that status, the British government cannot enter the embassy. If they do decide to withdraw that status, this actually would be, I think, a watershed in international law and cause significant problems around the world.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jennifer Robinson, what about this 1987 law that the British government is claiming would be able—they could justify removing the diplomatic protection of the embassy?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: As I stated, at present, Ecuador has diplomatic status. If the U.K. government were to revoke that status, it would be a watershed in international law. Irrespective of whether it’s permitted under British law, it would be a—it would be a significant step by the British government and one that I think, as international law academics have said, would put at risk the diplomats all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about a comparison to how the British government dealt with, for example, Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator? Interestingly, Baltasar Garzón is a lawyer for Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, the crusading Spanish judge and prosecutor who called for the extradition of Augusto Pinochet from Britain, where he was there for a medical visit, to Spain. He ultimately had to stay in Britain for a year, but then Britain had him—allowed him to go back to Chile.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I think that there are limited comparisons to be made between those two cases. Of course, Garzón is the leader of our legal defense team, and he has—he has reiterated the same points that I’ve made about the importance of this decision to grant asylum. But the cases, I think, are very different, and they’re just—it’s difficult to make any connection between them.

AMY GOODMAN: And this threat of a raid, what exactly would it mean? British soldiers or police moving into the embassy and extracting Julian Assange?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: It’s unclear what exactly it would mean. I mean, this is an—it would be an unprecedented action if the U.K. were to take that action. I suspect that if they were to withdraw the status of the British embassy, this would be a huge step and one that I know in recent days the British government has distanced themselves from that initial statement. If it were to happen, they would first have to withdraw the diplomatic status of Ecuador, which would again be a huge step. And after that, police—police officers would be able to get into the embassy and take Julian under arrest. But at this stage [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re losing you a little bit, Jennifer.

JENNIFER ROBINSON: At this stage, the British government has taken a massive step back from that initial threat to enter the embassy. As I said earlier, they would have to withdraw the status of the Ecuadorean embassy in England before they were able to do so. And that, in and of itself, would be a huge step. I don’t think that that’s going to happen, and it looks like we’re going to be facing a long standoff.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jennifer Robinson, the—Ecuador’s foreign minister has said that his country sought assurances from Sweden and the United States that Assange would not be extradited from Sweden to the United States, before making a decision, and they were not giving such assurances. That seems to buttress the fear of Assange that the real effort here is to get him into U.S. custody via Sweden. Your response to that announcement by the foreign minister of Ecuador, that he could not get those assurances from the United States?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: I think this is a very important point and one that ought to be emphasized, that Ecuador, in considering its international obligations in whether to grant Julian asylum, first sought the assurances that we had been asking our Australian government to ask on his behalf and who had also refused to request. So Ecuador took every step it possibly could, before taking this decision, to seek the assurances it required to assuage concerns about onward extradition to the U.S. It is worth emphasizing that this grant of asylum is with respect to the risk of onward extradition to the United States, and Sweden and the United Kingdom both refused to provide assurances that once matters were dealt with in Sweden, that Julian would be permitted to leave the country and would not be extradited to the United States. They refused to provide those assurances.

As he—he has always been willing to cooperate with the Swedish allegations. Again, he has not been charged in Sweden yet. They simply want his testimony. And in the course of their consideration of his application, the Ecuadorean government also offered the Swedish authorities the opportunity to interview Julian in relation to the Swedish sexual offense charge—allegations, in the embassy, and they also refused that offer. So Ecuador actually did—did try to get the assurances that they would be required to allow Julian to answer those allegations in Sweden and to assuage fears about onward extradition to the U.S. They refused to give them, and as a result, Ecuador has granted asylum.

AMY GOODMAN: After the announcement that Julian Assange had been granted political asylum in Ecuador, one of his lawyers in Sweden, Per Samuelsson, urged Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny to travel to London to question Assange.

PER SAMUELSSON: We can solve everything. The foundation for the arrest warrant was that they wanted an interrogation with Julian Assange in Sweden. Now it is no longer possible to have it in Sweden because he has been granted political asylum, but then we can do it in London. And that was—that is what we have been wanting all the time. And now I think it’s time for the prosecutor to change her mind and go along the line and do it quickly in London. Then everything will be solved. Then the foundation for the European arrest warrant will disappear, and Julian Assange can leave the embassy and go to Ecuador and seek protection from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Per Samuelsson, one of Julian Assange’s lawyers in Sweden. Jennifer Robinson, final comment on this and how long Julian Assange can remain in the Ecuadorean embassy in London?

JENNIFER ROBINSON: First of all, I agree entirely with Per Samuelsson, our colleague in Sweden, that if the Swedish prosecutor were to go to London and interview him, this could all be over, and he could go to Ecuador to seek protection from the United States. We have been offering his testimony from the U.K. as—from as early as October 2010. There was absolutely no need for this arrest warrant in the first place. It has kept him under house arrest in the U.K. for more than 18 months. And if they were—if they took the option to use the mutual legal assistance treaty that is available to them, we wouldn’t—we simply wouldn’t be in this position. And that’s the best possible outcome for everyone involved, including the women in Sweden who have made these allegations.

As to the question about his—how long he could remain in the Ecuadorean embassy, we certainly wouldn’t like it to be an indefinite position. But, of course, Ecuador has granted protection, and unless and until the British government removes the diplomatic status of the Ecuadorean embassy, Julian can remain in there indefinitely until he safe passage can be negotiated. Of course, we wouldn’t like to see that, and we think that the British government ought to give meaningful recognition of asylum rights by granting him safe passage. But unless and until that’s granted, he is subject to arrest when he walks outside the embassy. And at this stage, he is not willing to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Robinson, I want to thank you for being with us, the London-based legal adviser for Julian Assange. This is Democracy Now!

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