LONDON - Ecuador said Thursday that it was granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a decision that thrilled supporters but will do little to defuse the standoff at the Latin American nation's London embassy, where the Australian ex-hacker has been holed up for almost two months.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Ecuador believed Assange faced a real threat of political persecution - including the prospect of extradition to the United States, where Patino said the head of the secret-spilling website would not get a fair trial.
"It is not impossible that he would be treated in a cruel manner, condemned to life in prison, or even the death penalty," Patino told journalists in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital. "Ecuador is convinced that his procedural rights have been violated."
Britain's Foreign Office said it was disappointed by the decision, but that it still plans to fulfill its legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden, where he faces sexual assault allegations.
Assange shot to prominence after WikiLeaks repeatedly released huge troves of U.S. secret documents, moves which have outraged Americans and led to calls from American politicians to have him hunted down like a terrorist.
He is wanted in Sweden for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct, but supporters fear the Scandinavian extradition effort is the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated bid to make him stand trial in the United States.
Swedish officials, and the two women who have accused Assange, have denied that the extradition bid is politically motivated. Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny declined to comment on the asylum decision, saying the issue was a matter for Britain.
Ecuador's decision heartened supporters - there was a cheer outside the Ecuadorean Embassy when it was it announced - but is likely to have little practical effect on Assange's current status.
He remains in the modest embassy building, where he has been staying since June 19, and British authorities have pledged to arrest him if he leaves. Swedish authorities say their investigation remains ongoing.
Ecuador allowed the 41-year-old to take refuge in its embassy after Assange interviewed its president for his television show on Russia's English-language broadcaster, RT.
Britain caused a diplomatic storm with what Ecuador calls a threat to raid the embassy and arrest him.
Britain's Foreign Office denied making any threat, but a U.K. letter released Thursday made clear that a 1987 act would allow the government to revoke the Ecuadorean mission's diplomatic status.
"You should be aware that there is a legal basis in the U.K. - the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act - which would allow us to take action to arrest Mr. Assange in the current premises of the Embassy," the letter said.
"We very much hope not to get this point, but if you cannot resolve the issue of Mr. Assange's presence on your premises, this route is open to us."
The warning outraged supporters, a small group of whom flocked to the embassy in defense of Assange.
"I'm here to support freedom of speech, justice, and to support Julian Assange because he is a champion of all of these values," said Portuguese activist Pedro Lima, 35, who was among some 20 people protesting outside the red Edwardian apartment block down the street from London's famous Harrods department store.
The atmosphere was mostly peaceful, but at one point several people were dragged away from the embassy after refusing police orders to move across the street.