Embassies, emergencies, and Assange

Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly six years now, and I was thinking today that if the UK government had really wanted to get him out they just needed to arrange a convenient gas leak nearby. But what would happen in that kind of emergency? Presumably the police can’t force embassy staff to evacuate if there is a gas leak or bomb threat, or even a fire in the building. Assange could stay inside and take his chances. Or can the embassy staff bring the ‘sovereigness’ with them in some way to whatever temporary location they set up in?

With almost any other embassy, the formalities of attaching “sovereignness” to wherever they happen to be temporarily would hardly matter, except perhaps in respect of ensuring secure communications to their home capital if they were out for any extended period of time. In a case like Assange’s, he isn’t an accredited diplomat, so it’s hard to see how there would be some invisible protective aura of Ecuador territory attaching to every paving stone he walked across; but an embassy car or temporary embassy/residence elsewhere would be a different matter.

But perhaps the fact that there hasn’t been any such “gas leak” of “unexploded WW2 bomb” incident rather indicates that it isn’t a matter of great urgency for the UK authorities and there’s no need for this ridiculous performance - as it seems the Ecuadorian authorities may well be feeling by now.

Plus, organising a “gas leak” in an attempt to force the evacuation of the embassy would be a violation of the UK’s obligations towards Ecuador with respect to the embassy. Huge embarrassment, or worse, should it come to light.

I agree with this. But I would go one further, in that if there were a legitimate emergency, the UK would have to make a very careful calculation as to whether it would want to take advantage of the situation of diplomats fleeing for their lives in order to nab one non-protected person. If the UK does that, then it has signed up to a rather underhanded precedent which could come back to bite them. Imagine a North Korean defector seeking refuge in the British Embassy in Beijing, and then there’s fire, leading the Chinese authorities to nab the defector and return him to North Korea. The UK would surely be mad about that, so they probably don’t want to do similar things.

My guess is that since the Metropolitan Police apparently aren’t even bothering to guard the embassy anymore, the UK would not interfere with an evacuation of that embassy. But if there was an evacuation, and Assange decided to make a break for it, that would be different.

Good point, though according to Ecuador when Assange first hid in the embassy, the UK threatened that it would be legal to go in and arrest him. They never tried anything, presumably for the exact reason you said.

Also, according to the Guardian, Ecuador made plans to smuggle him out in a diplomatic vehicle or appoint him UN Ambassador so he would have diplomatic immunity in order to help him escape, so perhaps they would have tried something like that in an emergency.

I wonder how urgent the matter really is for UK authorities. When he first entered the Embassy they seemed pretty annoyed and paid for round the clock police guards, but at this point perhaps they prefer that he stay in there? He’s effectively jailing himself indefinitely without them having to go to the trouble of coming up with charges, finding evidence or holding a trial (which would necessarily give him an opportunity to defend himself); pretty convenient for any government who wants to punish him.

The only charges he would face in the UK is for breaching his bail conditions. There is no longer any extradition request to Sweden.

Since technically the UK police have no jurisdiction on Ecuadorian territory, they could only request that the occupants evacuate, they would have no basis for forcibly removing anyone, or even for going into the embassy site uninvited.

not sure the legal status of going into the office below the embassy and cutting a circular hole around where Assange is standing (a la Wiley Coyote). Presumably if he fell out of embassy territory into the non-embassy floor below, he’s fair game.

Do keep in mind when Snowden was supposedly flying from Moscow to South America the NATO forces had no qualms forcing down a diplomatic aircraft in Austria to search it, in gross violation of diplomatic norms.

Yes, but there is almost certainly a sealed indictment against him in the United States. It would be unsealed the moment he was in UK custody, and an extradition request would follow. Assange would fight it in the UK courts, but probably without much hope of success.

If I were him I wouldn’t bet that this wouldn’t happen, but if I had money to bet I wouldn’t want to bet money that it would happen either, considering the ties Wikileaks has to Russia.

Presumably this would have been created sometime after Assange entered the embassy, since he was in UK custody until then?

How do these sealed indictments work, anyway? Even if the UK dropped the bail jumping charge, couldn’t the US unseal it the moment he left the embassy and ask the UK police to arrest him? Or would he have enough time to get on a plane to Ecuador before anything could be done?

Why didn’t the US indict him when he was in UK custody* prior to his self-imposed exile in a cupboard?

  • Custody in the loosest of senses of course

A US sealed indictment doesn’t work at all in the UK. What may well be significant is an outstanding extradition request from the US :- this would have been handled confidentially, and will not be disclosed, to Assange or anyone else.

Assuming there is such an extradition request, he can be arrested by the UK police the moment it’s feasible to do so. He can try fighting it, but he will doing so whilst in British custody. (He’ll never be granted bail again, for obvious reasons).

This is what I don’t understand about Assange’s stance :- his stated fear is of such an extradition request. That hypothetical request will never expire :- he therefore has no exit strategy,ever. On his own logic, presumably his long term plan is to live out his life and die in the embassy ? A US prison might well offer better facilities.

Minor nitpick: the embassy isn’t Ecuadorian “territory”. Contrary to popular belief, an embassy remains the territory of the State in which it’s located. It’s simply territory that, as long as diplomatic relations exist between the countries, is inviolable under international law.

Italicised point is key. The UK has always had the power to break off diplomatic relations and assert its authority over the territory, though doing it for something like this would be … questionable.

I don’t understand why he was so keen to get the bail-jumping charge quashed if he would not dare to leave the embassy in any case. Can only assume his long term plan is that the UK government changes its mind and allows him to leave for Ecuador.

That will never happen. The UK has a lot of embassies across the world, and never wants any of them being used like this.