Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge inside the embassy Ecuador this week, seeking political asylum, just days after the U.K.'s Supreme Court dismissed his bid to re-open his bid to halt his extradition to Sweden for questioning in a sexual assault case.
A decision by the South American nation is expected imminently.
In seeking assylum, police in Britain said Assange violated the terms of his bail. They said they’re ready to arrest Assange should he decide to leave the Embassy of Ecuador in London — whether he's granted asylum or not.
But Assange says it’s not the British or Swedish authorities he wants to avoid.
Assange fears extradition from Sweden to the United States, where a grand jury is investigating his Wikileaks project that published hundreds of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. He could face the death penalty if convicted of the most severe crime possible.
Ohio State University Law Professor John Quigley said there is a possibility that Assange could be extradited to the United States.
“If he is sent to Sweden, it’s conceivable that the Swedish government could be asked by the United States for extradition, and that Sweden might agree to that request,” Quigley said.
Although the United States hasn’t asked for Assange to be handed over, Wikileaks representatives said Assange fears a fate similar to Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army soldier who is being prosecutred for allegedly providing classified material, the diplomatic cables, to Wikileaks.
Quigley said federal authorities are gathering evidence connecting Assange to the receipt of the information from Manning.
“As far as we know, there’s not any charge against Assange in the United States. So long as the government can’t find evidence that Assange was involved in that transmission, that is, if he could be charged with aiding and abetting the offense of Manning,” Quigley said. “It’s difficult for the federal government to find a charge against him.”
In 2010, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein stated Assange was in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. The law says anyone who has unauthorized possession of material relating to the national defense, which the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation, who communicates that information, is subject to prosecution.
In order for this charge to stick, the government would need to prove Assange transmitted the information and had reason to believe it would be used to the injury of the United States.
According to Quigley, there’s some question as to whether the Espionage Act applies here. Federal authorities have not charged Assange so far, perhaps in an attempt to be cautious.
“They want to be sure that they have something that would be solid. In particular, for extradition purposes, if it appears that you’re prosecuting for political purposes, then the other state is not obliged to extradite,” Quigley said.
Assange has denied the sexual assaut allegations made against him in Sweden and has said that he has put himself at the disposal of Swedish authorities, provided they interview him in London.
If Assange is extradited to Sweden and Sweden wanted to hand Assange over to the United States, the U.K. Home Secretary would need to give permission and Sweden would also need assurance from U.S. authorities that Assange won't face the death penalty.
There isn’t an extradition treaty between Ecuador and the U.S. that covers political charges, however, Quigley said if Assange does manage to get asylum, the U.S. would presumably put pressure on Ecuador to extradite.
“Ecuador is reliant on the United States in many ways. Economically, there’s quite a bit of leverage that the United States potentially has over Ecuador,” Quigley said.