UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - British Foreign Minister William Hague sought on Thursday to allay his Ecuadorean counterpart’s concerns about the fate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, saying Britain’s extradition law has “extensive human rights safeguards.”
Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape and sexual assault allegations.
His lawyers and Ecuador’s government fear that could lead to extradition to the United States, where he could face charges stemming from WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare Washington’s powerbroker maneuvers across the globe.
Hague met with Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly to discuss the case.
“Both Ministers agreed that they were committed to the search for a diplomatic solution to Mr Assange’s case. They were willing to meet again at this level in due course to continue these exchanges,” Hague’s spokesman said in a statement.
Britain says it is legally obliged to extradite Assange to Sweden, and that it will not allow the 41-year-old Australian to leave the embassy and travel to the South American country.
Pantino attended an event in New York on Wednesday at which Assange spoke via video link from London. Assange lashed out at U.S. President Barack Obama for supporting freedom of speech in the Middle East while “persecuting” his organization for leaking diplomatic cables in 2010.
Ecuador wants Britain to give Assange written guarantees that he would not be extradited from Sweden to any third country. Ecuador and Assange’s lawyers say that if he was extradited to the United States from Sweden he would face “inhumane” prison conditions and even the death penalty.
“The Foreign Secretary described the extensive human rights safeguards in UK extradition law. He requested the Government of Ecuador to study these provisions closely in considering the way ahead,” Hague’s spokesman said.
“The Foreign Secretary told Minister Patino that the UK was under an obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden. The concept of ‘diplomatic asylum,’ while well-established in Latin America, did not feature in UK law,” he said.
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Patino made clear that Ecuador is not willing to cede much ground. “The ball’s in their court right now,” Patino said.
Patino held in his hands a mimeographed copy of an 1880 agreement signed between Britain and Ecuador, which he said prohibits extradition in cases likes that of Assange. He said he planned to show the document to Hague.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Will Dunham