LONDON — Julian Assange has spent years on the move, trying to keep ahead of authorities who want to stop his secret-spilling mission.
Now the WikiLeaks founder finds himself confined in the surprising setting of Ecuador’s London embassy, where he was holed up Wednesday while diplomats discussed his fate and British police waited outside to arrest him if he leaves.
Assange is seeking political asylum in the South American nation, in a dramatic bid to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning about alleged sex crimes. His supporters say he fears charges in the United States for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents. But some legal experts say it is a desperate and likely futile move.
“He knows he’s reached the end of the road in the U.K. He knows he’s going to be extradited to Sweden,” said Alex Carlile, a senior British lawyer with expertise in extradition matters. “Basically, he has nowhere to go.”
The 40-year-old Australian landed himself in legal limbo Tuesday when he took refuge in the embassy a few doors down from the Harrods department store.
British police say Assange has violated the terms of his bail, which include an overnight curfew, and is subject to arrest.
But British officials concede he is beyond their grasp as long as he remains in the embassy, which under legal convention is treated as Ecuadorean territory.
Ecuador’s leftist president Rafael Correa, who has previously offered words of support to the WikiLeaks chief and taken part in an interview with him, told the Associated Press that Assange’s request was being considered.
“We are processing his request. Ecuador is a country of peace, freedom and justice,” he said, speaking at a climate summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A senior Ecuadorean official in Quito said the government was determining if Assange’s claim of political persecution was valid.
Before reaching a decision, Ecuadorean authorities planned to examine the accusations against Assange in Sweden and analyze that country’s laws and international accords, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In London, Britain’s foreign ministry said it would “work with the Ecuadorean authorities to resolve this situation as soon as possible.” Ecuadorean ambassador Anna Alban said she had had “cordial and constructive” discussions with British officials on Wednesday.
Ecuador said Assange would “remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorean government” while authorities in the capital, Quito, considered his case.
Carlile said even if Ecuador grants him asylum, Assange could find leaving Britain all but impossible.
“It’s inconceivable that the U.K. government would give him safe passage” to an airport, Carlile said.
“Even if he was in a diplomatic vehicle driving out the back door, that vehicle would be stopped and he would be extracted from it by the Metropolitan Police.”
On Wednesday police officers were stationed outside the Edwardian apartment block in the tony Knightsbridge district that houses the embassy. They were joined by a small group of protesters waving “Free Assange” placards.
Gavin Macfadyen of the Center for Investigative Journalism at London’s City University emerged from the embassy to say that Assange was meeting with his lawyers and was “in very good humour.”
Russian Television, meanwhile, broadcast a regular TV program hosted by Assange, a taped interview with Pakistan’s Imran Khan.
Assange was arrested in London in December 2010 at Sweden’s request. Since then he has been on bail and fighting extradition to the Scandinavian country, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sexual assaults on two women in August 2010.
He denies the allegations and says the case against him is politically motivated. He also claims extradition could be a first step in efforts to remove him to the United States, where he claims to have been secretly indicted over his website’s disclosure of 250,000 State Department cables. The leaks of the secret diplomatic exchanges deeply angered the U.S. government.
A U.S. soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, has been charged with aiding the enemy by passing the secret files to WikiLeaks and is awaiting trial.
Some found Ecuador a strange choice of refuge for a free-speech advocate. 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 from the country’s biggest newspaper, El Universo.
Asked about the case at a Geneva press conference, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said Assange was not being victimized.
“Getting too enamoured with the idea that Julian Assange is a whistleblower missed the reality that confidentiality on the part of governments is not all bad,” she said. “In many cases it is used to protect people and that must be balanced along with the preference for free flow of information.”
Assange had all but run out of legal options in Britain, where the Supreme Court last week affirmed an earlier decision that he should be sent to Sweden. He could still apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a move his lawyers have said they are considering.
The asylum bid took many Assange supporters by surprise — including some of those who put up 200,000 pounds ($315,000) to guarantee his bail. Assange’s high-profile guarantors include “Fahrenheit 911” director Michael Moore, human rights activist Jemima Khan and British filmmaker Ken Loach. They could lose their money if Assange absconds, though the final decision will be up to a judge.
Vaughan Smith, a former journalist who let Assange stay at his rural English home for more than a year as part of his bail terms, said the news “came as surprise.”
Smith said he stood to lose his 20,000-pound ($31,000) surety, but defended Assange nonetheless.
“This is money my family needs,” Smith said. “But my family don’t believe they are facing life imprisonment or death.
“I am convinced (Assange) genuinely believes he will be sent to America and will face something terrible there.”