Monday 20 June 2016

How long can Assange stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy

Four years ago WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge in Ecuador's UK embassy, a small flat in Knightsbridge, west London, that has become his de facto residence.
Inside, Mr Assange reportedly sleeps in a makeshift bedroom, exercises to maintain fitness, celebrates birthdays with embassy staff, and monitors his food intake for poisoning, all the while continuing to work on his WikiLeaks project.

Mr Assange entered the embassy on June 19, 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a rape allegation, which he denies.

If extradited to Sweden, Mr Assange fears he will be sent to the United States and put on trial for publishing classified documents.

What is diplomatic asylum?

  • Diplomatic asylum is the extension of diplomatic immunity privileges to a foreign national
  • Diplomatic immunity is a historic legal concept that grants diplomats exemption from local laws
  • It originally was born out of a need for state-to-state communication without fear of "shooting the messenger"
  • Immunity has since expanded to include missions, consulates, envoys and personal belongings
  • The concept was legally codified in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
  • Diplomatic asylum, however, is not officially recognised under international law
  • It remains a highly controversial practice
The statute of limitations on the rape allegation will not expire until 2020, but Ecuadorian authorities have stated Mr Assange can remain in the embassy as long as he wishes.

Mr Assange has compared living inside the embassy to life on a space station. But as weird as his current situation may be, it is not unique.

History is littered with hundreds of cases of people who sought refuge through another nation's diplomatic inviolability privileges, ranging from Tiananmen Square dissidents to overthrown leaders of state.

However, diplomatic asylum remains a vaguely defined practice that is highly controversial and, as a result, often has strange and unpredictable outcomes.

So what will happen in Assange's case?

Short answer: it is impossible to know.

"Cases of diplomatic asylum, while not unique in theory, are always unique in the way they unfold, due to murky guidelines and the diplomatic stress executing a political act on another country's territory entails," Amir Matar, an independent legal adviser on public international law, told the ABC.

"With Assange, there is no way of knowing what will happen, all options are on the table."
Possible scenarios for the end of Mr Assange's diplomatic asylum case have been put forward, and range from him handing himself over to British police, to seeking a United Nations ruling on his "arbitrary detention", to potentially carrying him out of the embassy and country in a diplomatically immune "body bag".

"But you have to remember, the decision to take Assange on as a diplomatic asylum seeker can always be argued by the UK and the US as a case of abusing diplomatic immunity," Mr Matar said, despite both the UK and the US having committed the same practice in times past.

"Legally speaking, [granting a foreign national diplomatic asylum] is not officially recognised by international law.

"So carrying him out in a body bag, surrounded by an envoy of British police officers all the way to the airport or British borders, while conceivable, would be seen as an extreme abuse of diplomatic privileges."

Mr Matar added that while Mr Assange was highly wanted, maintaining diplomatic relations was universally considered far more important.

"There's no way to know what will happen, so his situation should be seen as another real-time study of the legal implications of granting a foreign national diplomatic asylum," he said.

"He could stay there for 20 years, or he could leave tomorrow, we'll just have to see how it plays out."


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