Ecuador grants asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

LONDON -- Ecuador said Thursday it would grant political asylum to Julian Assange, the controversial founder of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website who has been holed up for nearly two months inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that Assange's legal and procedural rights had been violated, and that Ecuador accepted his argument that he faced possible political persecution by the United States, which is angry over his release of secret government files.

"We believe his fears are legitimate," Patino told reporters in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, Thursday morning.

PHOTOS: Assange granted asylum in Ecuador

The much-anticipated decision immediately turned Assange's legal fight into a diplomatic standoff between Ecuador and Britain, which says that it is obliged to turn Assange, 41, over to authorities in Sweden, a fellow member of the European Union.

For Assange himself, the announcement from Quito remains only a symbolic victory for the moment. Britain has refused to grant him safe passage out of the country; rather, police say that Assange is subject to immediate arrest if he sets foot outside the embassy because he breached his bail conditions.

Assange's supporters gathered outside the embassy before the decision was announced. A few protesters were arrested after scuffles with police, Sky News reported.

Ecuador's decision comes amid increasing acrimony between London and Quito over the Assange case. On Wednesday, Patino sharply rebuked the British government for what he described as a threat to raid its embassy to arrest Assange. By convention, embassies are considered sovereign territory of the countries they represent.

Ecuador is not "a British colony," Patino warned.

Assange, who is an Australian citizen, denies allegations that he sexually assaulted two women in Stockholm in August 2010. He has acknowledged having sex with them on separate occasions but disputes their accusations that coercion or force was involved.

He and his supporters insist that the allegations are part of a plot to remove him from Britain and ultimately to ship him to the U.S., which Assange says wants to try –- and possibly execute -– him for orchestrating the leak of thousands of classified State Department and Pentagon documents.

Assange took refuge inside Ecuador's embassy, located in one of London's toniest districts, on June 19, after his legal appeals against being sent to Sweden were virtually exhausted. Earlier that month, Britain's Supreme Court ruled that his extradition could proceed.

The request for political asylum in a third country was a bizarre twist in a saga that has dragged on since Assange was first arrested in December 2010. Although Assange remained "beyond the reach" of police while inside the embassy, Scotland Yard warned that he faced arrest the moment he stepped outside it for violating his bail conditions, which obligated him to abide by a nightly curfew at a
designated address.

The WikiLeaks founder had previously developed some kind of rapport with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. Assange interviewed Correa on a Kremlin-backed television show called "Russia Today," a sympathetic exchange in which the two men traded gibes about American arrogance.

Critics have noted the irony of Assange, a free-speech campaigner, appealing for help from a leader who has been accused of mounting a crackdown on journalists in Ecuador.

ALSO:

WikiLeaks chief Assange arrested in sex-crime case

Ecuador expected to decide fate of WikiLeaks' Assange

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange faces arrest, Scotland Yard says

-- Henry Chu

Special correspondent Cristina Munoz in Quito contributed to this report.


WikiLeaks founder's mom meets with Ecuador's president

Christine Assange, mother of WikiLeaks founder
QUITO, Ecuador -- The mother of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange met with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa here Wednesday to lobby for her son’s request for political asylum. Correa made no comment after the meeting, and it remains unclear how his government will decide the case.

Assange has been holed up for a month in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, awaiting word on his asylum petition. He is wanted in Sweden in connection with rape and sexual assault allegations and faces extradition from Britain if Ecuador denies his asylum request.

Assange's mother, Christine, an Australian national, arrived in Ecuador several days ago and has said she fears that Sweden  might send her son  to the U.S. to face espionage charges over WikiLeaks' publication of top-secret diplomatic cables.  She said a grand jury was convening in Virginia to consider such charges.

Assange told reporters in Ecuador that she felt abandoned by the Australian government, which she characterized as a “lap dog” of the U.S.

She spoke with Correa for half an hour Wednesday. Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, who accompanied Assange to the meeting, said a decision would be made sometime after the Olympic Games, which end Aug. 12.

 Assange said at a news conference after meeting with Correa that she had been received warmly in Ecuador.

“I am not here to demand anything of Ecuador, or its people, or its president. I am here humbly as a mother to present some facts. Of course I will be most grateful if asylum is granted," she said.

On Friday, Assange is to meet with former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who has agreed to act as an attorney for her son.  Garzon is best known for issuing an arrest warrant for late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

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Tetra Pak heir Hans Kristian Rausing sentenced in Britain 

-- Cristina Munoz in Ecuador and and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia

Photo: Christine Assange, mother of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, answers questions from reporters at the Carondelet Palace in Quito, Ecuador, after meeting with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to request political asylum for her son.  Credit: Rodrigo Buendia / AFP/Getty Images


President Rafael Correa defends Ecuador's air defenses

Diego Garcia Sayan (left) and Rafael Correa
QUITO, Ecuador –- Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Monday defended his country’s air defenses after a small plane linked to Mexican drug traffickers this month crashed undetected on the country’s northwestern coast, raising fears among foreign officials that cartels are trying to establish a new “air bridge.”

In a Twitter message, Correa rejected the notion that Ecuador’s “air defense is defenseless,” saying the country has a full complement of supersonic and propeller-driven aircraft to secure airspace, in addition to “powerful radar systems still being tested but which before didn’t exist.”

On May 13, a single-engine Cessna 210 crashed in coastal Manabi province, killing two Mexican pilots, one of whom had a previous arms-related conviction that linked him to the Sinaloa cartel. Found in the wreckage was a suitcase filled with $1.3 million in cash. Traces of cocaine were also in the plane, which apparently ran out of fuel, law enforcement officials told The Times.

That the plane managed to penetrate Ecuadorean airspace without being detected by local authorities has provoked criticism among Correa opponents for his refusal in 2009 to renew the U.S. lease of the Manta air base. The base, located in Manabi province, was used by reconnaissance aircraft to monitor smuggling operations in the eastern Pacific.

Two AWACS radar planes and one P-3 reconnaissance aircraft were based in Manta until September 2009, when the surveillance operation was transferred to bases in north-central Colombia. Ecuadorean fishermen complained at the time that U.S.-led counternarcotics operations based in Manta led to human rights abuses and financial losses.

The crash has prompted questions among Correa critics about the status of a $60-million Chinese radar system the country ordered after Colombian bombers and commandos briefly invaded northern Ecuador in March 2008 to kill top ranking rebel commander Raul Reyes of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Air Force officials on Monday did not respond to a request for a status update on its installation.

Foreign counternarcotics officials fear that Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers may turn to Ecuador as an air hub from which to fly drugs north toward North America, as well as to return cash to Andean cocaine producers. Ecuador already has seen sharp increases in maritime smuggling via fishing boats and submarine-like vessels leaving its shores.

The May incident is the first known example of an airplane flying illicit routes in a bid to land in Ecuador with suspected drug profits or take off with a cargo of drugs, officials told The Times. Residents in the crash area told reporters they heard the plane flying low and without its lights on just before the crash.

One official commenting on condition that he not be named said that police in Venezuela, where more than 90% of such illicit flights have originated in the past, recently have cracked down. On May 16, authorities in Ecuador raided a drug processing lab near the crash site, seizing half a ton of cocaine.

El Comercio newspaper of Quito on Saturday said it found three crude airstrips in Manabi whose use are barely monitored by civil aviation authorities. Residents told the newspaper they saw an aircraft resembling the crashed plane on one of the strips in Jama three months before the crash.

ALSO:

Arrest of alleged kingpin seen as blow to Sinaloa cartel

At Americas summit, Obama says no to legalizing drugs

Oldest known Maya calendar found in Guatemala

-- Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, and Cristina Munoz in Quito, Ecuador

Photo: A photo released by the Ecuadorean presidency shows President Rafael Correa, right, meeting with Diego Garcia Sayan, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, at Carondelet Palace in Quito in April. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


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