The dramatic decision by the Latin American nation to grant Assange political asylum is a symbolic boost for the embattled ex-hacker, but legal experts say it does little to help him avoid extradition to Sweden — and does much to drag Britain and Ecuador into an international faceoff.
"We're at something of an impasse," said lawyer Rebecca Niblock shortly after news of the asylum broke. "It's not a question of law anymore. It's a question of politics and diplomacy."
Assange has been holed up at the small nation's embassy in London since June 19 while fighting extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning for alleged sexual misconduct. He has exhausted all his legal avenues in his bid to avoid extradition.
"It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation," Assange said in a statement praising Ecuador.
But the U.K. says it will arrest Assange the moment he steps out of the Ecuadorean embassy. Many police officers are posted outside.
"Under our law… British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "We must carry out that obligation and, of course, we fully intend to do so."
The silver-haired Australian shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a huge trove of American diplomatic and military secrets — including a quarter million U.S. embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats. Shortly after, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault.
The saga took its latest twist on Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted political asylum to Assange. He said Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials -- a nod to the fears expressed by Assange and others that the Swedish sex case is part of a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States, something disputed by both by Swedish authorities and the women involved.
Patino said he'd tried to get guarantees from the Americans, the British, and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but that all three had rebuffed him. If Assange were extradited to the U.S. "he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it's not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty."
The U.K. Foreign Office said it was "disappointed" with Ecuador's decision but committed to a negotiated solution that would let it "carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act."
The stand-off has strained relationships between Sweden, Ecuador and the U.K. The Swedish Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Ecuador's ambassador to complain about the decision. Meanwhile, officials in both countries exchanged terse messages on Twitter.
"No one is going to frighten us," Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said on the social media site.
The U.K. has threatened to use a 1987 law to lift the diplomatic status of the embassy, though experts say the move would be unlikely and dangerous.
"It would threaten their embassy premises around the world," said Niblock.
Hague insisted Britain had no plan to force entry into Ecuador's mission. "There is no threat here to storm an embassy," he told reporters.
Meanwhile, legal experts and diplomatic historians were abuzz with various unlikely scenarios for Assange's possible escape from Britain — perhaps hidden in a diplomatic car or smuggled in an oversized diplomatic bag.
Britain's foreign ministry said diplomats would continue discussions with Ecuador aimed at resolving the case, but Hague warned that he expected the diplomatic stalemate to continue.
"This could go on for quite a considerable time as things stand," he told reporters. "There is no time limit for resolving this."