Last updated: June 21, 2012 9:53 am

Ecuador set to decide on Assange plea

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Pro-Assange activists outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London©PA

Pro-Assange activists outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London

British police are poised to arrest Julian Assange the moment he leaves the Ecuadorean embassy in London after the WikiLeaks founder sought political asylum there this week.

The Ecuadorean government said it would consider the asylum request by Mr Assange, who is seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning over allegations relating to sex crimes.

Marco Albuja, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister, said on Thursday his government expected to make a decision within 24 hours.

“The national government is considering its position and the president will give us his instructions tomorrow,” he was quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as saying.

But legal experts said that even if Ecuador were to grant him asylum, Metropolitan Police could arrest him the moment he left the embassy in Knightsbridge and made his way to an airport. This is because he broke bail conditions that allowed him to be at liberty pending a final judicial ruling relating to his case.

“He has breached one of his bail conditions which was to be at his bail address between 10pm and 8am every day ... He is subject to arrest under the Bail Act,” said London’s Metropolitan Police.

However, by diplomatic convention, British police cannot enter the embassy without authorisation from Ecuador, meaning that it may be some time before the stand-off is resolved.

Mr Assange is fighting extradition to Sweden, where he faces accusations of raping a woman and sexually molesting and coercing another in Stockholm in August 2010 while on a visit to give a lecture.

Last month, Britain’s Supreme Court upheld a High Court ruling that his extradition to Sweden was legal. Last week the same court refused an attempt by him to reopen his appeal against extradition, saying it was “without merit’’.

Mr Assange had until June 28 to ask European judges in Strasbourg to consider his case and postpone extradition on the basis that he has not had a fair hearing from the UK courts.

On Wednesday, Anna Alban, the Ecuadorean ambassador to the UK, visited the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and said the decision on Mr Assange’s application would be assessed by the department of foreign affairs in Quito.

Ms Alban said the foreign ministry would take into account “Ecuador’s long and well-established tradition in supporting human rights”. However, she added that it was “not the intention of the Ecuadorean government to interfere with the processes of either the UK or Swedish governments”.

The Ecuadorean government said Mr Assange had expressed fears that if he were sent to Sweden he would be extradited onwards to the US where he believed he could face criminal charges punishable by death.

Mr Assange’s asylum application to Ecuador was widely criticised. “He is asking for protection of freedom of expression for journalists, but he is asking for asylum in a country that is basically censoring newspapers,” Frank La Rue, UN special investigator for freedom of expression, told Reuters news agency.

Rafael Correa, the leftist Ecuadorean president who is a close ally of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, is facing criticism over his treatment of Ecuador’s media after a series of libel and defamation suits against journalists and publications and a gag order related to reporting of next year’s presidential elections.

As far back at 2010, amid the storm caused by the WikiLeaks cable dump, Ecuador offered Mr Assange asylum.

More recently, Mr Assange interviewed Mr Correa for his show on Russia Today.

The WikiLeaks cables proved a double-edged sword for Mr Correa, who angrily denied former US ambassador Heather Hodges’ classified assertion that the president had knowingly hired a corrupt police commander. He later expelled Ms Hodges, provoking the tit-for-tat expulsion of Ecuador’s ambassador in Washington, Luis Gallegos.

In his application for asylum, Mr Assange said his native Australia had abandoned him.

Mr Assange, who is on £200,000 bail, has attracted several high-profile supporters including film director Ken Loach and socialite and charity fundraiser Jemima Khan, who each offered £20,000 as surety. It was unclear on Wednesday night what would happen to the bail payments.

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