Assange case ‘a threat’ to immunity

The FCO’s warning to the Ecuadorian government of a law that allows Britain to revoke the immunity of a diplomatic premises and arrest Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a direct threat to diplomatic immunity and sets a dangerous precedent, according to diplomats in London.

In an Embassy survey, 94 per cent of respondents said using or even threatening to use the law had the effect of eroding diplomatic immunity.

Britain’s ex-Ambassador to Russia Sir Anthony Brenton warned that the action risked undermining the diplomatic immunity of British diplomats in difficult postings.

A large majority (88 per cent) of respondents were unaware that the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act of 1987 existed and more than half (56 per cent) claimed such a law could only be compatible with the Vienna Conventions in exceptional circumstances when a mission was involved in serious undiplomatic activities, such as supporting terrorism against the host state.

More than two thirds of respondents (69 per cent) felt the case of Julian Assange did not qualify since the Ecuadorian government was within its rights under international law to grant Mr Assange asylum.

In the survey, half the respondents said they did not have such a law in their country and that the Vienna Conventions “applied directly”; six per cent claimed they had a similar law, while 44 per cent did not know whether their countries were able to revoke the immunity of a diplomatic premises.

While some diplomats (31 per cent) felt the UK was within its rights to remind Ecuador of local laws, most (50 per cent) saw the FCO’s warning to the Ecuadorian government as a tactical “blunder” because their actions amounted to “bullying”.

One embassy worker said the move was an “own goal” because it would allow some Latin American countries to “turn up the volume on the ‘anti-imperialist rhetoric’” on issues such as the Falklands .

These views echo those of the Ambassador of Ecuador Ana Alban, who said in a recent interview that the FCO action had been “the biggest mistake,” adding: “They were trying to show this little country that Britain is still an empire and we should learn how to be good boys during our stay here.”

On the night the letter was delivered, the Embassy was surrounded by police, recalled the Ambassador, who has also had to cope with the logistics of a resident asylum seeker in her small mission.

However, being thrust into the spotlight has had lighter moments, such as the string of celebrities visiting the Embassy including pop star Lady Gaga and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who created a T-shirt to raise money for Wikileaks.

Mr Assange sought asylum in the Embassy four months ago to avoid being extradited to Sweden where he faces questioning over allegations of rape, but he fears he will be sent to US to face charges over espionage. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has again called on Sweden to interview Mr Assange inside the Embassy.