Assange's options for escape

GLENDA KWEK
Last updated 21:07 21/08/2012
ASYLUM WON: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy in London earlier this week.
Reuters
ASYLUM WON: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy in London earlier this week.

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If you're wondering how long Julian Assange can live in an embassy, the two months he's spent in one so far are no time at all - compared with Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty.

The cardinal lived in the US embassy in Budapest for 15 years following the failed Hungarian uprising, before he was allowed to leave it for Rome in 1971.

In 1990, Lebanese general Michel Aoun took refuge in the French embassy in Beirut for 10 months before being exiled to France.

In 1996, Burundi president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya took refuge in the US ambassador's residence in Bujumbura days before he was overthrown in a coup. He left 11 months later.

In April, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng took refuge in the US embassy in Beijing after escaping house arrest. He was taken to hospital for medical treatment in May and was eventually granted a visa to leave for New York.

LEAVING THE EMBASSY

If Assange is driven to an airport, under international law, British police could stop an embassy car but would not have the power to search it, according to the BBC. But Assange would still have to leave the car to board a plane to Ecuador, and that's when police could take him into custody.

The Ecuadorian embassy, which occupies only one floor of the building it is in, also does not have a garage and has only one entrance, so the Australian would have to exit the embassy to get into a vehicle, again leaving him open to arrest, CNN reported.

The building's elevators are considered communal areas so if Assange tried to get to the roof to a waiting helicopter, he could be arrested en route.

COULD HE BE TAKEN OUT IN A DIPLOMATIC CRATE?

Under Article 27(3) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, "the diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained".

Just before Assange's balcony address on Sunday, reporters said a crate with the words "Diplomatic property of the Republic of Ecuador - Umm …This is NOT Julian Assange" was placed outside the embassy.

But Article 27 (4) states that the diplomatic container - whether it is a bag or crate - "may contain only diplomatic documents or articles intended for official use".

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The British government could also scan the container. In 1985, it declared it would "be ready to scan any bag on specific occasions where the grounds for suspicion are sufficiently strong"*.

Others have suggested that Assange could be appointed a diplomatic courier, although that again could be seen as incompatible with the functions of the embassy, as required by the Convention.

If an operation to smuggle Assange out of the embassy is attempted, it would not be without precedent.

In 1964, an Israeli identified as Mordechai Louk was found tied up, gagged and drugged in a trunk - which had been fitted with a seat - at Rome Airport.

The trunk was marked "Diplomatic Mail No. 33" and appeared to have been "used for other such 'shipments', because the exterior appeared worn", The New York Times reported then.

Mr Louk was reportedly freed from the trunk when an airport guard heard his moans, the Times said.

In 1984, Umaru Dikko, a minister in the Nigerian government that was overthrown, was kidnapped in London, drugged and placed in a crate.

He was found by customs officials in the crate at Stansted Airport in Essex before being shipped to Nigeria. The officials were able to open it as there were no "visible external marks" or seal, as required by the Vienna Convention.

Also in the crate was a doctor, who "had accompanied Dikko in the box to top up his anaesthetics and ensure he did not die during transit", The Independent reported.

WHAT'S LIFE LIKE IN ECUADOR?

Ecuador, despite its support of Assange and his whistleblowing site WikiLeaks, does not have a good history of protecting press freedom, human rights experts said.

"[Ecuador President Rafael] Correa's press freedom record is among the very worst in the Americas, and providing asylum to the WikiLeaks founder won't change the repressive conditions facing Ecuadorian journalists who want to report critically about government policies and practices," US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement on its website.

Mr Correa, who has been in power since 2007, has clashed with private media in the South American nation, news agency Agence France-Presse reported.

A lengthy legal battle with the opposition El Universo newspaper over an article saw three of the publication's executives and its former opinion page editor sentenced to jail before being pardoned following an outcry, AFP said.

"Correa is trying to profit from the asylum [granted] to Assange," one of the pardoned executives, Carlos Perez, said.

*Cases and Materials on International Law, DJ Harris, Fifth Edition, 1998.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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