Ecuador is slated to announce Thursday morning whether Julian Assange, the founder of the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website, will be granted asylum after holing up in its embassy.
The decision is expected to be a major turn in the winding legal and political saga of Assange, a provocative figure whose website has infuriated governments by airing official secrets and has won fervent fans among Internet activists who have rallied behind his cause.
Assange first turned up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in June, shortly after the British Supreme Court ruled he could be extradited to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault. The complaints were lodged by two women who claimed Assange had abused them during a Swedish lecture tour.
Assange denies the allegations and has claimed that he is being politically persecuted so he can be sent to the United States, which was angered by the release of secret Pentagon documents and a vast trove of State Department cables. In his bid for asylum, Assange argued that he could face the death penalty for "political crimes" in the U.S., where he claims he has been secretly indicted.
The idea of heading to Ecuador was not new: An Ecuadorean deputy foreign minister had flirted with the idea of giving Assange residency in Ecuador two years ago to ensure he could continue his work. At the time, President Rafael Correa said he had not approved the offer.
Assange later interviewed President Correa for a television show while under house arrest in Britain. Their rapport was evident during the interview. The leftist president denounced the U.S. and praised WikiLeaks for exposing its actions; Assange chuckled at his jokes.
British officials say Assange broke the terms of his bail by heading for the Embassy, making him subject to arrest as soon as he leaves. Even if Assange is granted asylum, it is unclear how he would be able to evade British authorities and get to Ecuador without being arrested.
Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino claimed Wednesday that British officials had threatened to assault the London Embassy if Assange was not handed over, saying its warnings were “a hostile and unfriendly act” that flouted international norms.
International media have been abuzz over whether Ecuador will grant Assange asylum. The Guardian reported Tuesday that unnamed officials said Assange would get refuge, quoting one Quito official as saying, "We see in his work a parallel with our struggle for national sovereignty."
Correa denied the rumors Tuesday on Twitter, saying no decision had been made yet. Patino told reporters Wednesday that a decision would be announced Thursday morning.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Police stand guard Wednesday outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website, is seeking asylum. Credit: Oli Scarff / Getty Images