LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Thursday that any decision by Ecuador to give Julian Assange political asylum wouldn't change a thing and that it might still revoke the diplomatic status of Quito's embassy in London to allow the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder.
The high-profile Australian former hacker has been holed up inside the red-brick embassy in central London for eight weeks since he lost a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over rape allegations.
Britain's tough talk on the issue takes what has become an international soap opera to new heights since Assange angered the United States by publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables on his WikiLeaks website. It may also raise difficult questions for London about the sanctity of embassies' diplomatic status.
The Ecuadorean government, which said it would announce whether it had granted Assange's asylum request on Thursday at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT), has said any attempt by Britain to remove the diplomatic status of its embassy would be a "hostile and intolerable act".
"It is too early to say when or if Britain will revoke the Ecuadorean embassy's diplomatic status," a Foreign Office spokesman said. "Giving asylum doesn't fundamentally change anything."
"We have a legal duty to extradite Mr Assange. There is a law that says we have to extradite him to Sweden. We are going to have to fulfill that law."
Outside the embassy, British police tussled with protesters chanting slogans in support of Assange and at least three supporters were detained.
Quito bristled at Britain's warning.
"We want to be very clear, we're not a British colony. The colonial times are over," Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said in an angry statement after a meeting with President Rafael Correa.
Britain's threat to withdraw diplomatic status from the Ecuadorean embassy drew criticism from some former diplomats who said it could lead to similar moves against British embassies.
"I think the Foreign Office have slightly overreached themselves here," Britain's former ambassador to Moscow, Tony Brenton, told the BBC.
"If we live in a world where governments can arbitrarily revoke immunity and go into embassies then the life of our diplomats and their ability to conduct normal business in places like Moscow where I was and North Korea becomes close to impossible."
Ecuador's embassy, near London's famed Harrods department store, has been under tight surveillance, with police officers manning the entrance and patrolling its perimeter.
A group of pro-Assange protesters gathered outside the building overnight in response to a rallying call by his supporters on social media websites.
Wearing trademark Guy Fawkes masks - to evoke the spirit of the 17th century English plotter - they held banners and blasted out songs by punk group The Jam from a portable speaker.
A Reuters reporter saw at least three protesters being dragged away by police. About 20 officers were outside the embassy trying to push away the crowd of about 15 supporters.
"I am upset that the British government is willing to go in there and take him by force," said Liliana Calle, 24, an Ecuadorean student waving her country's flag outside the embassy. "It makes me think they don't believe in human rights."
In what appeared to be prank, taxis lined up outside the embassy asking for Julian Assange.
"I've lived, worked and traveled in places with proper dictatorships and nowhere have I seen violations of the Vienna convention to this extent," said Farhan Rasheed, 42, a historian wearing an "I love Occupy" badge, outside the embassy.
"Here we have a government which claims to be a government of law and justice, stretching and possibly about to break a serious binding international agreement."
Swedish prosecutors have not yet charged Assange, but they believe they have a case to take to trial.
Assange fears Sweden could send him on to the United States, where he believes authorities want to punish him for publishing thousands of diplomatic cables in a major embarrassment for Washington.
Even if he were granted asylum, Assange has little chance of leaving the Ecuadorean embassy in London without being arrested.
There has been speculation he could travel to an airport in a diplomatic car, be smuggled out in a diplomatic bag, or even be appointed an Ecuadorean diplomat to give him immunity.
But lawyers and diplomats see those scenarios as practically unworkable.
Ecuador's leader Correa is a self-declared enemy of "corrupt" media and U.S. "imperialism", and apparently hit it off with Assange during a TV interview the Australian did with him in May. Correa joked then with Assange that he had joined "the club of the persecuted".
The Ecuadorean government has said it wants to avoid Assange's extradition to Sweden, but if it did decide to grant him asylum it would offer no legal protection in Britain where police will arrest him as soon as they get a chance.
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Alessandra Prentice; Writing by Maria Golovnina and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Andrew Osborn)
Published September 8, 2010
DEBATE. John Daniels, head of the military intelligence Must, warn of attacks by the Taliban and criminals after Wikileaks publishing secret documents. He calls for a "dual" to secure the military's IT systems with large amounts of secret material.
When Wikileaks publishes secret documents from Afghanistan revealed not only that there are shortcomings in the protection around the secret data, the publication can also create an immediate danger to life of individuals.
Information relating to the Armed Forces' operations give an opponent a basis for adapting tactics and countermeasures. For protection of personnel to operate and be effective in many cases remain confidential. Divulged our protection and our plans, we become vulnerable to attacks from the Taliban and criminals, who have a different agenda for Afghanistan over the international community.
Especially serious and devastating to the mission in Afghanistan is about secret personal data of persons who are reporting to and cooperating with the international force is running out. In the event that these people's identities from being disclosed is an obvious risk of deadly reprisals.
If the claim is true that Wikileaks informant is a single person, the men think. Military IT systems that contain large amounts of information requires a special security protection. These systems should be designed so that an individual not on your own can collect large amounts of information. By creating a system of "dual control" prevented this and the risk of large information leakage. A sloppy comparison would be the principle to fire nuclear weapons, which requires two independent persons keys to perform a firing.
In order to obtain the documents that have so far been published on Wikileaks had, before the modern information technology, demanded that a wide range of safes broken open. I? Days is enough to hack an IT system or as an authorized user fill out the entire database.
It previously came across classified documents and wanted to publish them, were first forced to find an interested journalist and then a chief who was willing to take the risk of revealing secret information. With the Internet, the individual has become his own editor with the ability to publish in real time.
Wikileaks disclosure also shows the need for thorough background checks of personnel handling classified information. This would hopefully reveal a disgruntled employee and the leak could have been avoided.
The military intelligence is constantly working to develop methods and mechanisms for the protection of the Armed Forces information and personnel. Security threats are very much alive, especially in operational areas such as Afghanistan. In recent years we have found that social media is used for intelligence gathering and targeting of staff. In 2009, there are also a number of cases in which soldiers in Afghanistan, or closely associated with them, have been subjected to threats, which have been found to be linked to the Swedish troop contribution to Afghanistan.
The incidents have mainly been linked to the employee's erroneous use of mobile phones and social media. These incidents have in some cases affected the personal safety and in other cases, led to loss of information.
No matter how technically secure IT systems we build, stands or falls on the safety of the individual employee's safety awareness and behavior. The solution to the problem of leaks can never be reduced to a technical question, but must also be a matter of how well trained our staff are and how we ensure that only persons who are trustworthy and loyal may have access to secret information.
Chief of Military Security
Informal discussions have already taken place between US and Swedish officials over the possibility of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange being delivered into American custody, according to diplomatic sources.
Mr Assange is in a British jail awaiting extradition proceedings to Sweden after being refused bail at Westminster Magistrates’ Court despite a number of prominent public figures offering to stand as surety.
His arrest in north London yesterday was described by the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates as “good news”, and may pave the way for extradition to America and a possible lengthy jail sentence.
The US Justice Department is considering charging Mr Assange with espionage offences over his website’s unprecedented release of classified US diplomatic files. Several right-wing American politicians are pressing for his prosecution and even execution, with Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate, saying he should be pursued the same as al-Qa’ida and Taliban leaders.
Mr Assange’s appearance in the London court, the focus of massive international media attention, puts Britain in the centre of the controversy and recrimination over the publishing of thousands of diplomatic cables which have caused acute embarrassment to the administration in Washington. If the man responsible for putting them in the public domain is to be silenced, his supporters say, the process started here.
The Swedish government seeks Mr Assange’s extradition for alleged sexual offences against two women.
Sources stressed that no extradition request would be submitted until and unless the US government laid charges against Mr Assange, and that attempts to take him to America would only take place after legal proceedings are concluded in Sweden.
Mr Assange, 39, had voluntarily gone to a police station accompanied by solicitors after the issuing of an international warrant.
The court heard that Jemima Khan, the sister of the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, the film director Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger were among those who had offered to stand bail to the sum of £180,000. But District Judge Howard Rule remanded him in custody on the grounds that there was a risk the WikiLeaks founder would fail to surrender.
Mr Loach, who offered £20,000, explained that he did not know Mr Assange other than by reputation, but he said: "I think the work he has done has been a public service. I think we are entitled to know the dealings of those that govern us." Mr Pilger, who also offered £20,000, said he knew Mr Assange as a journalist and personal friend and had a "very high regard for him".
"I am aware of the offences and I am also aware of quite a lot of the detail around the offences,” said Mr Pilger. “I am here today because the charges against him in Sweden are absurd and were judged as absurd by the chief prosecutor there when she threw the whole thing out until a senior political figure intervened." Ms Khan offered a further £20,000 "or more if need be", although she said she did not know Assange.
Gemma Lindfield, appearing for the Swedish authorities, successfully opposed bail being granted because there was a risk he would fail to surrender – and also for his own protection, she said. She outlined five reasons why there was a risk: his "nomadic" lifestyle, reports that he intended to seek asylum in Switzerland, access to money from donors, his network of international contacts and his Australian nationality.
Mrs Lindfield added: "Any number of people could take it upon themselves to cause him harm. This is someone for whom, simply put, there is no condition, even the most stringent, that would ensure he would surrender to the jurisdiction of this court."
Ms Lindfield told the court that Mr Assange was wanted in connection with four allegations of sexual offences.She said the first complainant, Miss A, said she was victim of "unlawful coercion" on the night of 14 August in Stockholm. The court heard Mr Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner.
The second charge alleged Mr Assange "sexually molested" Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her "express wish" one should be used. The third charge claimed Mr Assange "deliberately molested" Miss A on August 18 "in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity".
The fourth charge accused Mr Assange of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on 17 August without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.
District Judge Riddle said: "This case is not, on the face of it, about WikiLeaks. It is an allegation in another European country of serious sexual offences alleged to have occurred on three separate occasions and involving two separate victims. These are extremely serious allegations. From that, it seems to me that if these allegations are true, then no one could argue the defendant should be granted bail.”
However he added: "If they are false, he suffers a great injustice if he is remanded in custody. At this stage in these proceedings, the nature and strength of the allegations is not known."
Mr Assange’s solicitor, John Jones, said he agreed the case was not about WikiLeaks but was a "simple accusation" case with the right to bail.
He said: "In relation to the state of play in Sweden, it is important for the court to be aware of the background to this. Mr Assange has made repeated requests that the allegations against him be communicated to him in a language he understands. That has been ignored by the Swedish prosecutor. Another Swedish prosecutor dropped this case early on for lack of evidence and it was resurrected in Gothenburg rather than Stockholm."
Another of Mr Assange's lawyers, Mark Stephens, said he believed British authorities would go to extreme lengths to ensure his client was "perfectly comfortable" during his time in jail. While he is confident Mr Assange's time behind bars will be brief, he said he did not want to appear to be "too cocky".
"I think a lot of people, including the police, thought that he would get bail today. They were very surprised he didn't," he said.
Praising District Judge Howard Riddle's assessment of the case, Mr Stephens said: "We are incredibly grateful to the judge for making it clear to the prosecutor that he thinks he wants to have a look at the evidence, to make assessments as to whether there is a real risk of conviction or not, because that will make a difference as to whether or not he wants to put him out on bail, or not, on the next occasion."
Criticising Swedish authorities involved with the case, Mr Stephens said: "It's a persecution, not a prosecution.".
He maintained that while Mr Assange was not prepared to go to Sweden to face alleged sexual assault claims, his client was prepared to meet the Swedish prosecutor in England.
"That, I think, is a reasonable approach," he said.
The pressure on WikiLeaks, which relies on online donations from a worldwide network of supporters to fund its work, continued after Visa and Mastercard suspended all payments to the website.
A spokesman for Visa E said: "Visa Europe has taken action to suspend Visa payment acceptance on WikiLeaks’ website pending further investigation into the nature of its business and whether it contravenes Visa operating rules." A MasterCard spokesman said: "MasterCard is currently in the process of working to suspend the acceptance of MasterCard cards on WikiLeaks until the situation is resolved.”
Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesperson, said: "WikiLeaks is operational. We are continuing on the same track as laid out before. Any development with regards to Julian Assange will not change the plans we have with regards to the releases today and in the coming days."
The legal proceedings
Q Why is Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, facing legal proceedings in the UK when the allegations against him relate to events in Sweden?
A Under the European arrest warrant procedure any EU state can request the legal assistance of another EU country in the detention of a suspect wanted for an offence committed abroad.
Q Mr Assange's lawyers say he is not on the run and has voluntarily surrendered to police. So why is he being held in prison?
A District Judge Howard Riddle, sitting at the City of Westminster magistrates' court, refused Mr Assange's application for bail because he decided there was a danger he might abscond.
Q What happens next?
A First his lawyers will return to court next week to try to secure his release on conditional bail. Eventually there will be an extradition hearing at which the Swedish prosecution authorities will present prima facie evidence to show there is case for Mr Assange to answer.
Q How long will the proceedings last?
A Mr Assange's legal team are already preparing to challenge the extradition in the High Court in London. If they lose the case there, they can take it all the way to the Supreme Court, a process which could last many months.
Conservative propaganda machine calls for the assassination of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
What Does it Cost to Change the World? from WikiLeaks on Vimeo.