Ecuador grants political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) -- Ecuador said Thursday it was granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a decision that thrilled supporters but did not defuse the standoff at the Latin American nation's London embassy, where the 41-year-old Australian has been holed up for almost two months.

Assange's recognition as a political refugee by Ecuador's leftist government was a big symbolic victory for the embattled ex-hacker, but it did little to answer the question: `How will he ever leave the embassy?'

"We're at something of an impasse," extradition lawyer Rebecca Niblock said shortly after the news broke. "The U.K. government will arrest Julian Assange as soon as he sets foot outside the embassy but it's very hard as well to see the Ecuadorean government changing their position."

She said there was practically no precedent for the situation, invoking the case of a Hungarian cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who camped out at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest from 1956 to 1971.

"One can't see Mr. Assange doing the same thing," she told BBC television. "One side will have to back down eventually."

The decision to grant Assange asylum was announced Thursday in the Ecuadorean capital of Quito by Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who said there were "serious indications" that the United States could threaten Assange's "security, integrity and even his life."

Assange's asylum claim centers on claims of sexual assault leveled against the WikiLeaks founder by two women he met while on a trip to Sweden in the wake of some of his organization's spectacular disclosures of U.S. intelligence material. The women accuse him in separate cases of molestation and rape, and Swedish authorities have been seeking his extradition since late 2010.

Assange, who denies the accusations, has expressed fears that the case is the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated bid to make him stand trial for his leaks in the United States -- a version of events backed by many of his high-profile supporters.

Patino said Thursday that it was clear that if Assange were extradited to the United States "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."

Swedish prosecutors -- and Assange's female accusers -- have denied that the case is politically motivated.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said it has summoned Ecuador's ambassador over the decision.

"We want to tell them that it's unacceptable that Ecuador is trying to stop the Swedish judicial process," spokeswoman Anders Jorle said.

Swedish Prosecution Authority spokeswoman Britta von Schoultz said the investigation into Assange was still active.

"The prosecutor has decided, with the court's backing, to issue a European arrest warrant," she said. "When that decision has been made, it's difficult to rewind. For investigative reasons he needs to be here."

British authorities have also indicated little appetite for backing down. In a statement, the country's Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the decision to offer Assange asylum -- noting that he had exhausted every appeal possible to British authorities over the course of a roughly 18-month-long legal saga.

"U.K. authorities are under binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," the ministry said in a statement posted to Twitter. "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian government's decision this afternoon does not change that."

Britain has threatened to use an obscure 1987 law that officials claim would give British police the right to enter the embassy to arrest Assange, though legal experts called the move unlikely.

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