WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told reporters in London on Monday he plans to leave the Ecuadorean Embassy “soon.”
The whistleblower sought refuge there two years ago when the UK Supreme Court dismissed his efforts to block extradition to Sweden where he’s wanted for questioning on allegations of sexual assault involving two women.
Assange, who has always protested his innocence, believes any extradition to Sweden will ultimately lead to extradition to the US where he could face charges related to the publication of classified government documents in recent years. The 43-year-old Australian thinks if that happens, he has little chance of getting a fair hearing, although his opponents would argue otherwise.
Despite being granted asylum by the Ecuadorean government, the UK authorities have always insisted that Assange will be arrested and extradited should he step outside the embassy, a stance that has resulted in a round-the-clock police presence at the site that has so far cost taxpayers an estimated £6.5 million ($10.8 million).
Assange said during Monday’s press conference that as a result of his self-imposed confinement, his health was suffering – heart and lung problems, as well as high blood pressure, have been reported by many news outlets in recent days. The WikiLeaks founder declined to elaborate, adding only that he was in an “environment in which any healthy person would find themselves soon enough with certain difficulties.”
Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s foreign minister, sat alongside Assange during the press gathering, and insisted the situation “must come to an end. Two years have been definitely too long. It is time to free Julian Assange. It is time for his human rights to be respected.”
The UK Foreign Office said it’s still looking for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing case, saying that it was also keen to bring the “difficult and costly situation to an end.”
However, it added, “We are clear that our laws must be followed and Mr. Assange should be extradited to Sweden.”
With that statement, it’s hard to see how he can leave “soon” without being cuffed and extradited to the UK’s European neighbor. Assange didn’t offer any specifics on when he might leave, or his future plans. It’s certainly clear from the Foreign Office’s statement that UK officials have not changed their position regarding how it intends to deal with the Australian once he steps outside of the embassy. If he ever does.
‘No way to prosecute him’ in the US
The US has made no official statement on whether it would attempt to bring Assange across the pond should he leave the Ecuadorean Embassy, though a Washington Post report toward the end of last year suggested the US Department of Justice would be unlikely to take action against him as it would then have to also go after the journalists that reported WikiLeaks’ publication of classified material.
“The problem the department has always had in investigating Julian Assange is there is no way to prosecute him for publishing information without the same theory being applied to journalists,” former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said at the time, adding, “If you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange.”