Last night the British government asserted that Julian Assange will never be allowed free passage out of the country, effectively imprisoning him in the Ecuadorian embassy.
The announcement followed yesterday's granting of political asylum to Assange by Ecuador. The Foreign Minister of Ecuador stated that asylum had been granted on the basis of "serious indications" that the United States represents a threat to Mr Assange's "security, integrity and even his life".
The British government is insisting that the granting of asylum has not changed anything. However, the Foreign Office appears to have back-tracked on its earlier suggestion that it could legally enter the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Assange. According to the Independent
, Prime Minister David Cameron, who is on holiday in Spain, has contacted the Foreign Office
...amid fears the department had blundered by issuing the warning to Ecuador.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has also stated that the current impasse could last for months or even years. In an obvious retreat from his Department's letter to the government of Ecuador, which had suggested force could be used, Hague stated:
There is no threat here to storm an embassy.
This explicit assurance that the diplomatic immunity of the Ecuadorian embassy will not be violated is surely to be welcomed. The notion that a person alleged to have committed a crime has no right to political asylum and that the presence of such a person in an embassy invalidates diplomatic immunity would effectively destroy the Vienna Convention
and make political asylum virtually impossible.
The British government's decision to abandon its implied threat to forcibly enter the Ecuadorian embassy is a significant step forward. Nevertheless, Julian Assange is still left with few options. It has been suggested that the government of Ecuador might grant him citizenship and diplomatic status, which would enable him to freely leave the country. However, diplomats have to be recognised by the host country and there are no signs that the British government would do so.
It has also been suggested that Assange could leave by being placed in a "diplomatic pouch". Whilst this might sound like a plot device from a comedy, it is not without precedent. However, previous cases have been discovered and thwarted by suspicious police and customs officials, who have suspected the contents were "not legitimate diplomatic material", thus providing cause for inspection.
Another alternative would be for Assange to attempt to leave the country by adopting a disguise, trusting that the police would not recognise him. The idea that such a ruse would fool the authorities defies credulity.
A realistic alternative would be for Ecuador to appoint Assange as its United Nations (UN) representative. This would enable him to freely travel around the world on UN business and he could only be denied that immunity by UN General Assembly, something that would be time-consuming and during which time he would be able to leave Britain. However, there is at present no suggestion that Ecuador intends to do so.
For the present, it seems Assange's only option is to remain, effectively under house arrest, in Ecuador's Knightsbridge embassy. Judging by previous cases, however, he could be in for a long stay. Jozsef Mindszenty, the anti-Communist Hungarian Catholic cardinal, for example, spent 15 years in the US embassy in Budapest.