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Ecuador's foreign minister announced on Thursday that the country would grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, defying threats by the British government to storm the Ecuadorean Embassy and extradite Assange to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in cases of alleged rape and sexual molestation.
"We have decided to grant political asylum to him," Ricardo Patino said at the end of a long televised statement from the Ecuadorean capital of Quito, where he criticized the U.S. and U.K. governments for failing to protect Assange from political persecution.
"The countries that have a right to protect Assange have failed him," Patino said. "[Assange] is victim of political persecution. ... If Assange is extradited to U.S., he will not receive a fair trial."
The foreign minister said that Ecuador asked Sweden to promise it would not extradite Assange to the United States, but Sweden refused.
"Asylum is a fundamental human right," Patino said, adding that "international law" overrides local laws, and that Assange has "the right not to be extradited or expelled to any country."
A crowd gathered outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where Assange, a 41-year-old Australian native, has been holed up since June, to hear the announcement. At least one protester was arrested.
[Slideshow: The scene outside the embassy]
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office called Ecuador's decision to grant Assange asylum "regrettable."
"British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden," a spokesman for the office said. "We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorean government's decision this afternoon does not change that."
"We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said at a press conference. "Nor is there any legal basis for us to do so. The United Kingdom does not recognize the principle of diplomatic asylum."
According to The Associated Press, Sweden summoned Ecuador's ambassador to Stockholm, calling the decision to grant asylum to Assange "unacceptable."
Moments before the announcement, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa tweeted: "No one is going to terrorize us!"
It's unclear what will happen to Assange now. U.K. authorities say his asylum is a violation of his probation—and there is reason to believe he would be arrested if he tried to leave the embassy. "Assange is going to Sweden," Louise Mensch, a conservative member of the British Parliament, tweeted. "We are going to extradite him there. That's it and that's all. #rape."
Assange fears that if he were extradited to Sweden, he would immediately be extradited to the United States, which has condemned WikiLeaks' publication of classified documents. Assange and his supporters say the U.S. would charge him with espionage; the U.S. has not said whether or not it would pursue charges against him.
On Thursday, the White House declined to comment on Assange.
On Wednesday, Patino said he received a "clear and written" threat from British authorities who claimed "they could storm our embassy in London if Ecuador refuses to hand in Julian Assange."
"We want to be very clear, we're not a British colony," Patino said. "Colonial times are over."
British officials said they are obligated to turn Assange over to Stockholm.
"The U.K. has a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual offenses and we remain determined to fulfill this obligation," a spokesman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in response. "Under British law we can give them a week's notice before entering the premises and the embassy will no longer have diplomatic protection. But that decision has not yet been taken. We are not going to do this overnight. We want to stress that we want a diplomatically agreeable solution."
That allows the U.K. to revoke the diplomatic status of an embassy on U.K. soil, which would potentially allow police to enter the building to arrest Mr. Assange for breaching the terms of his bail.
Such a move, though, would be unprecedented.
In a statement early Thursday, WikiLeaks condemned the U.K.'s threat to raid the embassy:
A threat of this nature is a hostile and extreme act, which is not proportionate to the circumstances, and an unprecedented assault on the rights of asylum seekers worldwide.
In 2010, Swedish prosecutors in Stockholm issued warrants to question Assange about alleged sex crimes involving a pair of former WikiLeaks volunteers. Assange claims the charges are part of an international smear campaign stemming from WikiLeaks' publication of diplomatic cables.
After a brief international manhunt, Assange turned himself in to London police in December 2010. He was granted bail and placed under house arrest. After Assange's appeals to fight his extradition to Sweden were denied, he fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Inside the embassy, Assange "sleeps on an air mattress in a small office that has been converted to a bedroom," according to The New York Times. "He has access to a computer and continues to oversee WikiLeaks, his lieutenants have said."
According to Sky News, Assange watched the announcement from inside the building and welcomed it as a "significant victory," but added: "Things will get more stressful now."
According to WikiLeaks, Assange "will give a live statement in front of the Ecuadorean embassy" on Sunday at 2 p.m. local time.
Filmmaker Michael Moore, one of several Assange supporters who contributed funds to guarantee his bail, applauded the decision, and urged Londoners to demonstrate outside the embassy. "As Americans we were lied [to] by our government about Iraq," Moore wrote on Twitter. "He exposed the truth."
Ecuador, it's worth noting, has a horrible record on press freedom.
And Correa, in particular, has had a "torrid relationship" with the press, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in a recent editorial. "His arsenal of repression includes such tactics as pre-empting private broadcasts to denounce the presenters, bankrupting papers through defamation suits, and publicly shouting down critics who dare question him."