Assange: Ecuador asylum bid may not succeed

June 2012: Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, recently sought asylum inside Ecuador's London embassy.

June 2012: Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, recently sought asylum inside Ecuador's London embassy.  (AP2012)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange acknowledged Thursday that he doesn't know whether Ecuador will approve his unusual plea for political asylum, as he spent a third night inside the country's London embassy.

Assange told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in an interview that he had mounted his bizarre request for political asylum in Ecuador because his native Australia had made an "effective declaration of abandonment" by refusing to intervene in his planned extradition from Britain to Sweden.

"We had heard that the Ecuadoreans were sympathetic in relation to my struggles and the struggles of the organization with the United States," Assange told ABC, explaining his actions in his first public comment since launching his asylum bid.

However, Assange acknowledged there was no guarantee that his plea would be successful, and indicated he didn't know when a decision on his case would be made.

Ecuador President Rafael Correa told reporters in Quito on Thursday night that careful deliberations and consultations with other nations were involved.

"We are going to have to discuss with and seek the opinions of other countries. We don't wish to offend anyone, least of all a country we hold in such deep regard as the United Kingdom," Correa said after arriving from a climate summit in Brazil.

"Once a decision is made we can talk about safe passage and such things," he added.

British authorities say they are poised to pounce the moment Assange steps out of Ecuador's London embassy.

He would be arrested, they say, for breaching the terms of his bail, which include an overnight curfew at a registered address.

A divisive figure with a knack for garnering attention, Assange has been fighting since 2010 to avoid extradition from Britain to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual assaults on two women.

He denies the claims, and says the case against him is politically motivated.

Journalists and a handful of WikiLeaks supporters have been gathered outside the Edwardian building that houses the embassy in London's Knightsbridge district in anticipation of a resolution to the saga.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said "it could take hours, it could take days" before a decision was made. Speaking after visiting Assange Thursday, he said Ecuador had asked for information from Britain, Sweden and the United States and would study it before making a decision.

Assange said that even if Ecuador rejected this plea, he would have helped to draw attention to what he insists are attempts in the United States to draw up charges against him for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents via the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website.

"We are in a position to draw attention to what is happening. The Department of Justice in the United States has been playing a little game, and that little game is that they refuse to confirm or deny the existence of a grand jury," Assange said. "We are hoping what I am doing now will draw attention to the underlying issues."

A U.S. soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, a 24-year-old Crescent, Oklahoma, native, has been charged with aiding the enemy by passing the secret files to WikiLeaks and is awaiting trial.

A Virginia grand jury is studying evidence that might link Assange to Manning, but no action has yet been taken. The grand jury has been investigating for more than year and could continue for months or even years longer. Witnesses have been called, though the identities of most are unknown.

Per Samuelson, one of the WikiLeaks founder's two Swedish lawyers, said Assange "feels that he's persecuted politically by the U.S." for revealing American war crimes.

"He is convinced that the U.S. is preparing charges," he said. "He feels that his asylum application is not about the crime accusations he faces in Sweden, but is about getting protected from the U.S."

Supporters say Assange believes that if he was extradited to Sweden he would then likely become the target of a U.S. request to extradite him there over allegations linked to his secret spilling. Many legal experts dismiss the idea as paranoid and fanciful.

Assange, who was speaking to ABC by telephone from inside Ecuador's London embassy, accused Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her government of "slimy rhetoric" over his case.

"I haven't met with anyone from the Australian High Commission since December 2010," he said, claiming that contact with diplomats had been limited to text messages.

Australia's foreign minister Bob Carr said Wednesday that the country could not become involved in Sweden's extradition request, dismissing his claims that the case was directly linked to secret spilling.

"It's not about WikiLeaks, it's not about secrets, it's not about political persecution," Carr said.

Assange's dramatic asylum bid took many of his supporters — and even his lawyers — by surprise. Samuelson said he had not been informed about Assange's plans until the 40-year-old Australian had already entered the embassy.

The lawyer said Assange was camping out "in an office that has been prepared with overnight sleeping facilities."

"I don't get the feeling that they (embassy staff) are in a hurry to get rid of him. He's welcome there," said Samuelson, who met with Assange Wednesday.

Hrafnsson said Assange was "in good spirits" and prepared to wait things out in the embassy. "He will stay until this matter is settled," Hrafnsson said. "I assume that if asylum is not granted, he will leave."

Even if Assange is granted asylum, it is unclear how he could leave the embassy without being arrested by British police. Legal experts say he would forfeit the embassy's protection the moment he steps out of the door.

Assange has exhausted legal appeals against extradition in Britain, but has until June 28 to apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

The left-leaning Correa, who has sought to reduce U.S. influence in Latin America, has praised WikiLeaks for exposing U.S. secrets and offered Assange words of support.

Correa said Wednesday that Assange had made it clear in his letter requesting asylum that "he wants to continue his mission of free expression without limits, to reveal the truth, in a place of peace dedicated to truth and justice."

Some have questioned Ecuador's commitment to freedom of speech. Correa's government has been assailed by human rights and press freedom activists for using Ecuador's criminal libel law in sympathetic courts against journalists, including some from the country's biggest newspaper, El Universo.


Associated Press Writers David Stringer in London, Frank Bajak in Colombia and Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.