WikiLeaks Founder Tries to Get Asylum

LONDON—British police said Wednesday that Julian Assange violated his bail conditions by seeking asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in the U.K., as the WikiLeaks founder’s benefactors—some on the hook for tens of thousands in bail money—expressed surprise at the Australian activist’s last-ditch attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed that Mr. Assange was “subject to arrest” for failing to report to his specified bail address Tuesday night. Instead, the Australian activist was ensconced in the Ecuadorean embassy, a brick building in London’s posh Knightsbridge district, where he had arrived Tuesday afternoon to request political asylum.British police cannot access Mr. Assange because he is technically on diplomatic territory. “We will seek to work with the Ecuadorean authorities to resolve this situation as soon as possible,” the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement.
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Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesWikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside a London court in February.

Ecuador’s government is considering Mr. Assange’s asylum request. Meanwhile, the embassy said the WikiLeaks founder will remain under Ecuadorean government protection. Outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London on Wednesday, seven WikiLeaks supporters gathered with signs, including one that said, “Don’t shoot the messenger” in Swedish.

“The generosity of the embassy is impressive,” Gavin MacFadyen, a supporter of Mr. Assange and director of London’s Centre for Investigative Journalism, said outside the embassy after visiting with the WikiLeaks founder on Wednesday morning. Mr. MacFadyen said lawyers are currently negotiating: “It’s a very fluid situation.”

Mr. Assange’s plea to Ecuador comes as the latest twist in the activist’s long-running attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations that he raped one woman and molested another during a trip to the Scandinavian country in 2010. He has denied the allegations.

His asylum request came as a surprise to some supporters, a few of whom are on the hook for £200,000 ($314,500) in deposited bail money and another £40,000 in so-called “surety,” or money people agreed to forfeit only if Mr. Assange were to violate his bail terms.

British socialite Jemima Khan confirmed Tuesday night on her Twitter feed that she had put up money for Mr. Assange and wasn’t informed about his decision. “I had expected him to face the allegations. I am surprised as anyone by this,” Ms. Khan wrote.

Vaughan Smith, the former British army captain who housed Mr. Assange for over a year at his English countryside estate, also said he wasn’t made aware of the WikiLeaks founder’s plan in advance. Mr. Smith put up “surety” for Mr. Assange.

“I’m slightly concerned that I may have guaranteed 20 grand to be paid later,” Mr. Smith said in a phone call from Italy. “The interests of my family are obviously impacted by the loss of that sort of money.” Still, Mr. Smith expressed support for Mr. Assange, describing the WilkiLeaks boss as a friend, a courageous campaigner and now a new sort of “Western dissident.”

“I know that he genuinely feels that if he goes to Sweden he will be sent to America,” Mr. Smith said. “I know he does believe that 100%.”

Mr. Assange believes the U.S. is interested in prosecuting him for his release of a quarter of a million U.S. State Department cables starting in 2010. U.S. authorities are investigating whether Mr. Assange or others working for WikiLeaks did anything to induce the accused leaker, Pfc. Bradley Manning, to hand over confidential government information, people familiar with the matter have said. Any prosecution of Mr. Assange in the U.S. faces a number of hurdles, such as whether he would qualify for prosecution under the Espionage Act and whether U.S. prosecutors could target WikiLeaks but not the news outlets that cooperated to publish the leaked information.Mr. Assange has been engaged in a protracted legal battle to avoid extradition since his arrest in late 2010, during which three British courts, including the U.K. Supreme Court, have upheld Sweden’s extradition request.

The WikiLeaks founder’s choice of country isn’t by chance. In late 2010, after Mr. Assange was arrested in Britain, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister invited him to relocate to the Andean nation and live freely without any conditions. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, later characterized the invitation a “personal statement by the deputy minister” rather than a formal, authorized offer.

Last month, Mr. Assange interviewed Mr. Correa on Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed television channel where the WikiLeaks boss has a show. During the interview, Mr. Correa talked about asserting Ecuador’s sovereignty in the face of U.S. pressure.

Outside the embassy on Wednesday, Bélgica Guaña, an accountant who is an Ecuadorean citizen but has lived in the U.K. for 16 years, said she supports Mr. Assange because she believes he helped expose the truth.

“This is a political thing. They’re trying to silence him,” she said. “I trust my president will make the right decision. He respects human rights.” Ms. Guaña dismissed suggestions that the media isn’t free in Ecuador.

International human rights groups say otherwise. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit dedicated to press freedom, said in a special report last year that Mr. Correa’s administration “has led Ecuador into a new era of widespread repression by pre-empting private news broadcasts, enacting restrictive legal measures, smearing critics and filing debilitating defamation lawsuits.”

Earlier this year, a part owner of Ecuador’s leading newspaper took refuge in the Panamanian embassy in Quito after Ecuador’s top court ordered the paper to pay a $40 million fine and upheld three-year prison sentences for the part owner and three others for defaming Mr. Correa. After an outcry, Mr. Correa forgave the fine as well as the prison terms. The newspaper owner left the embassy.

Ecuador was one of the governments that reacted most strongly to the publication of the WikiLeaks cables, kicking out U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges from Quito in response to a July 2009 cable signed by Ms. Hodge.

The cable alleged widespread police corruption may have occurred with Mr. Correa’s knowledge. Shortly after, the U.S. kicked out Ecuadorean Ambassador to Washington Luis Gallegos.

—Mercedes Alvaro and Evan Perez contributed to this article.Write to Paul Sonne at paul.sonne@wsj.com

[Source: WSJ)
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