Ecuador granted Julian Assange asylum over fears of political persecution Thursday, but it was hardly a reprieve as Britain vowed to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to Sweden to face questioning on sex crime charges.
Assange, whose website has published hundreds of thousands of once-secret U.S. government documents, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June.
Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said Thursday there is credible fear that if Assange is sent to Sweden, he could subsequently be extradited to the United States, where he could be charged with espionage and treason.
In the United States, there are no guarantees that Assange would receive a fair trial or that he wouldn't be subject to a military or secret tribunal, Patiño added.
"The Ecuadorian government, after carrying out a fair and objective analysis of the situation presented by Mr. Assange and evaluating his oral and written arguments, has decided that there's cause to presume that he could be the target of political persecution or that such persecution could happen if no timely and necessary measures are taken to prevent it," Patiño said.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd offered "no comment on Julian Assange or the dispute over his asylum between Ecuadorian and UK authorities."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice Department is conducting an "active, ongoing criminal investigation" into the WikiLeaks disclosure of classified U.S. diplomatic documents, while Assange and his supporters say that a U.S. grand jury has been empaneled to consider charges against him.
Yet he doesn't face any U.S. charges yet. And it is unclear if Assange, an Australian citizen, could be charged with treason in the United States or what sentence he'd face if convicted. Those convicted of treason in the United States may be sentenced to between five years in prison up to death, according to federal law published on the U.S. House of Representatives' website. But the law only applies to those "owing allegiance to the United States."
A death sentence can also be imposed on those convicted of espionage by communicating certain sensitive information to a "foreign government" or other such faction "with intent or reason" to harm the United States, according to U.S. federal law. But there are death penalty restrictions for that crime.
Whatever might theoretically happen in the United States, Ecuador has asked Britain to guarantee safe passage for Assange and to respect its determination.
Yet the UK said it was disappointed by Ecuador's decision and will continue to work toward trying to arrest and extradite Assange to Sweden.
"We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian government's decision this afternoon does not change that," the UK Foreign Office said in a statement.
Foreign Minister William Hague said Britain will not provide safe passage for Assange, and that the UK had "painstakingly" assured the Ecuadorians that his human rights would be protected.
"It is important to understand that this is not about Mr. Assange's activities at WikiLeaks or the attitude of the United States of America. He is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offenses," Hagues said.
Meanwhile, a former Spanish judge vowed that he and others making up Assange's defense team will take their client's case to the International Court of Justice if Britain does not allow him to go to Ecuador.
"What the United Kingdom must do is apply the diplomatic obligations of the (U.N.) Refugee Convention and let him leave with a safe conduct pass," Baltasar Garzon told CNN by e-mail from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
Garzon, a well-known crusading human rights judge who ordered the arrest of ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998, said he's working pro bono for Assange as a coordinator of his defense team. Spain's judicial authority removed him from the bench last February following his conviction in a case in which that nation's Supreme Court determined Garzon improperly ordered wiretaps while investigating a financial corruption case.
Assange himself on Thursday praised Ecuador for standing up for him.
"I am grateful to the Ecuadorian people, President Rafael Correa and his government. It was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation," Assange said from the embassy, according to a WikiLeaks news release.
Britain Vows to Fight Julian Assange Asylum
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been given asylum by Ecuador (KTLA-TV)