Britain refuses to give Assange safe passage, despite Ecuador's asylum offer

Britain will not allow WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange safe passage out of the UK, despite Ecuador granting him asylum on Thursday, according to a top British government official.

"We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom, nor is there any legal basis for us to do so,'' British Foreign Secretary William Hague told a news conference in London. "The United Kingdom does no recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum.''

The Australian ex-hacker has been holed up for almost two months at the Latin American nation's London embassy in an effort to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, speaking during a news conference in Quito, Ecuador, said Ecuador believed Assange faced a real threat of political persecution -- including the prospect of extradition to the United States, where Patino said the head of the secret-spilling website would not get a fair trial.

"It is not impossible that he would be treated in a cruel manner, condemned to life in prison, or even the death penalty," Patino told journalists in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital. "Ecuador is convinced that his procedural rights have been violated."

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The Swedish Foreign Ministry says it has summoned Ecuador's ambassador over the Latin American country's decision.

Stockholm Foreign Ministry spokesman Anders Jorle said Thursday, "We want to tell them that it's inacceptable that Ecuador is trying to stop the Swedish judicial process."

Britain's Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the decision, but that it still plans to fulfill its legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden.

Assange's recognition as a political refugee by Ecuador's left-wing government was a big symbolic victory for the embattled ex-hacker, but it did little to answer the question: `How will he ever leave the embassy?'

"We're at something of an impasse," lawyer Rebecca Niblock said shortly after the news broke. "It's not a question of law anymore. It's a question of politics and diplomacy."

She said British authorities remained under the legal obligation to arrest Assange, 41, as soon as he set foot outside the embassy building because he had been under strict bail conditions when he sought asylum.

"He's in breach of his bail," she noted. "But I can't see Ecuador changing their position."

Staying in the embassy long-term, "seems to be one of the few feasible options I can think of," she said, adding that the question of how long Assange could stand it in the embassy was not one she could answer.

Assange shot to prominence after WikiLeaks repeatedly released huge troves of U.S. secret documents, moves which have outraged Americans and led to calls from American politicians to have him hunted down like a terrorist.

He is wanted in Sweden for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct, but supporters fear the Scandinavian extradition effort is the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated bid to make him stand trial in the United States.

Swedish officials, and the two women who have accused Assange, have denied that the extradition bid is politically motivated. Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny declined to comment on the asylum decision, saying the issue was a matter for Britain.

Ecuador's decision heartened supporters -- there was a cheer outside the Ecuadorean Embassy when it was announced -- but is likely to have little practical effect on Assange's current status.

He remains in the modest embassy building, where he has been staying since June 19, and British authorities have pledged to arrest him if he leaves. Swedish authorities say their investigation remains ongoing.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.