UPDATE: Police have clashed with a protester at the Ecuadorian embassy in west London as tension mounts over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bid for political asylum.
The Australian, wanted by British authorities for breaching his bail conditions, is just hours from learning if Ecuador will protect him. If not, he faces being ejected from the embassy into the arms of police.
Assange sought refuge in the embassy on June 19, after a British court ordered his extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning about allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Assange says he fears deportation to the United States, which may seek to convict him for his website’s release of a trove of secret official documents.
Assange’s supporters say the Swedish charges are trumped up and believe the US has secretly indicted him and would extradite him from Sweden.
In Australia, Assange’s mother Christine said she feared a decision by Ecuador not to protect her son could lead to him eventually being deported to the United States to face trial over the publication of the secret documents.
“What the US wants, the US gets from its allies, regardless of if it’s legal or if it’s ethical or in breach of human or legal rights,” Ms Assange told AAP.
The Ecuadorian government will announce its decision on Assange’s future at 10pm today (AEST).
The New York Times is reporting that Ecuador is prepared to allow Assange to remain in its embassy in London indefinitely under a type of humanitarian protection.
A government official in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, said that the British government had made it clear it would not allow Assange to leave the country to travel to Ecuador, so even with a grant of asylum or similar protection, he would probably remain stuck in the embassy.
Despite a growing police presence at the building that houses the embassy, and social media speculation, police have not entered the embassy. However, the Metropolitan Police may be preparing to deal with angry supporters if Assange emerges and is arrested.
Shortly before 1pm Australian time, WikiLeaks released a statement saying that, in a message to the Ecuadorian government, Britain had “threatened to forcefully enter the Ecuadorian embassy in London and arrest Julian Assange”.
The statement claimed that Britain had said such action would be permissible under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987.
It said British authorities had given the warning because it had become aware Ecuador was planning to grant Assange asylum.
Condemning the threat, the WikiLeaks statement said: “Any transgression against the sanctity of the embassy is a unilateral and shameful act, and a violation of the Vienna Convention, which protects embassies worldwide.”
Several police vans were outside the embassy, police were seen entering through a side door and uniformed officers were standing guard at the front entrance.
A crowd of Assange supporters was ordered behind police tape 20 metres from the door.
Police forcefully moved a young man who tried to obstruct a police van, as protesters shouted that police were invading the embassy of a sovereign nation.
A police inspector, after asking protesters blocking an alleyway to move, told them “as far as I know [Assange] is not in police custody”.
Asked if police were there to arrest the Australian, he said: “I can’t say at the moment.”
Late last night, local time, the British Foreign Office issued a statement that said “we are still committed to reaching a mutually acceptable solution” with Ecuador.
A crowd began building in the street outside the embassy within minutes of police arriving. Assange supporters used social media to urge people to gather at the location. “Ecuadorian embassy” is trending worldwide on Twitter.
Occupy Wall Street tweeted shortly after the raid: “ANNOUNCEMENT: #Assange supporters are calling for an occupation at #Ecuador’s Embassy in #London RIGHT NOW.
Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told a news conference that Ecuador had received a written threat on Wednesday from Britain that “it could assault our embassy” if Assange was not handed over.
He said the threat was delivered to Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry and ambassador in London.
Any such incursion would be “without modern precedent” and could end up before the international courts, an Australian law expert said.
Professor Donald Rothwell, from Australian National University College of Law, said the government’s stance shows just how serious Britain is about extraditing the WikiLeaks founder to Sweden.
“The Ecuadorian embassy enjoys protection under Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which precludes the United Kingdom authorities from entering the embassy without consent. Assange has enjoyed the protection of the embassy since he sought asylum there on June 19, 2012.
“If the United Kingdom revoked the embassy’s diplomatic protection and entered the embassy to arrest Assange, Ecuador could rightly view this as a significant violation of international law which may find its way before an international court.”
In Australia, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the Commonwealth had little power to intervene.
Ms Roxon said the government had yet to receive any formal advice on Assange’s asylum application to Ecuador. She said she had learnt of the latest updates through the media.
Despite calls for government intervention into Assange’s predicament, Ms Roxon insisted the matter was an issue between Assange and Ecuador, “and increasingly it seems it is a matter between Ecuador and the United Kingdom”.
“Our role in this is only a diplomatic one, a consular one to make sure Mr Assange has support that he needs for consular issues. It’s not something where we have any legal role where we can play.”
– with AFP, PA, AP, Philip Dorling, Dylan Welch and Jessica Wright