LONDON (Reuters) - Julian Assange risks being thrown into a cell the moment he leaves the Ecuadorean embassy in London after breaching bail to avoid extradition to Sweden.
The Australian former computer hacker, who enraged Washington in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website published secret U.S. diplomatic cables, is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sex crime allegations. He says he fears he could be bundled to the United States where his life would be at risk.
News crews and a dozen supporters bearing "Free Assange" placards gathered outside the embassy, a five-storey red-brick building in the upmarket district of Knightsbridge where Assange sought refuge on Tuesday.
There was no sighting of Assange, whose distinctive white-blond hair has helped make him instantly recognisable around the world. A reporter from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organisation based at London's City University, was permitted inside to see Assange and said he was in good spirits.
Ecuador said Assange had expressed fears that if sent to Sweden he would be extradited onwards to the United States where he believes he could face criminal charges punishable by death.
"I genuinely believe, and I know him well, that he fears for his life," said Vaughan Smith, who hosted Assange at his country mansion for 13 months after the Australian was freed on bail in December 2010.
By diplomatic convention, British police cannot enter the embassy without authorisation from Ecuador. But even if Quito granted him asylum, he has no way of travelling to Ecuador without passing through London and exposing himself to arrest.
"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 a spokesman for London's Metropolitan Police.
Legal experts said it was unclear what would happen to a 240,000-pound ($377,000) deposit provided by Assange's supporters, including a number of celebrities, to secure his bail.
Asked via Twitter by Britain's Guardian newspaper whether she was on the hook, socialite Jemima Khan tweeted back: "Yes. I had expected him to face the allegations. I am as surprised as anyone by this." Khan declined to say how much she had paid.
Assange, whose unpredictable behaviour and love of the limelight have cost him the support of some former friends and colleagues, lost a long-running legal battle last week to avoid extradition from Britain to Sweden.
His 11th-hour decision to seek refuge in the embassy was more reminiscent of Cold War espionage dramas than the British legal process. The dramatic move drew widespread criticism.
"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, United Nations special investigator for freedom of expression, told Reuters.
Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa has clashed with journalists since he took office in 2007, accusing a "media dictatorship" of undermining his rule. Opponents accuse him of seeking to silence dissenting voices.
Assange expressed sympathy with Correa's war on media while interviewing the Ecuadorean leader on Russia Today, an English language TV channel sponsored by the Kremlin that employs Assange.
"Let's get rid of these false stereotypes depicting wicked governments persecuting saint-like and courageous journalists and news outlets. Often, Julian, it's the other way round," Correa told Assange during the interview.
"President Correa, I agree with your market description of the media. We have seen this again and again, that big media organisations that we have worked with ... have censored our material against our agreement," Assange said in response.
WikiLeaks made a huge impact in 2010 by working with prestigious newspapers in several countries that published some of the material it had obtained, but later fell out with them.
Assange has been criticised for agreeing to host his own chat show on Russia Today, given the Russian authorities' own dubious record on freedom of speech.
After disregarding diplomatic protocol by publishing cables that were supposed to be confidential, Assange is now relying on diplomatic convention to shield himself from a legal extradition process. Critics pointed to the irony.
"Getting too enamoured of the idea that Julian Assange is a whistleblower misses the reality that confidentiality on the part of governments is not all bad," U.S. human rights ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters in Geneva.
Authorities in Quito, who briefly offered Assange residency at the height of the WikiLeaks furore in November 2010 before backing off, are considering his asylum request.
Assange's decision to appeal to Ecuador follows his Russia Today interview with Correa, posted on YouTube on May 22.
"Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted," Correa told Assange at the end of the 25-minute interview, during which the pair traded flattering comments and jokes.
Assange praised Correa for getting more done for his country than President Barack Obama was achieving for the United States.
Neither U.S. nor Swedish authorities have charged Assange with anything. Swedish prosecutors want to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women, former WikiLeaks volunteers, in 2010. Assange says he had consensual sex with the women.
Having exhausted all possible avenues offered by the British courts, Assange's only option to keep fighting extradition would be an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby and Stephen Addison in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Peter Graff