* Assange at Ecuador embassy in London
* Foreign minister says request being considered
* Assange faces extradition to Sweden from Britain
* Australia offers consular support
(Adds Australian PM, academic)
By Alexandra Valencia and Avril Ormsby
QUITO/LONDON, June 19 WikiLeaks' founder Julian
Assange has taken refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London and
asked for asylum, officials said on Tuesday, in a last-ditch bid
to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crime accusations.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his country
would weigh the request from the self-styled anti-secrecy
campaigner, whose website is famous for leaking hundreds of
thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables.
The appeal for protection was the latest twist in Assange's
18-month fight against being sent to Sweden, where he is wanted
for questioning about allegations of rape and sexual assault
made by two female former WikiLeaks volunteers.
The situation threatens to inflame tensions between the
government of Rafael Correa, Ecuador's leftist and ardently
anti-Washington president, and U.S. authorities, who accuse
Assange of damaging its foreign relations with his leaks.
It is also an embarrassment for Britain, whose foreign
ministry on Tuesday confirmed the 40-year-old Assange was beyond
the reach of its police in the Ecuadorean embassy.
"Ecuador is studying and analyzing the request," Patino told
reporters in Quito. He added that any decision would be made
with "respect for norms and principles of international law".
The Andean nation in 2010 invited Assange to seek residency
there but quickly backed away from the idea, accusing him of
breaking U.S. laws.
Since his detention, Assange has mostly been living under
strict bail conditions at the country mansion of a wealthy
supporter in eastern England. His associates say that amounts to
540 days under house arrest without charge. Breach of bail
conditions is potentially a criminal offence.
"While the department assesses Mr. Assange's application,
Mr. Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of
the Ecuadorean Government," the embassy said on its website.
"The decision to consider Mr. Assange's application for
protective asylum should in no way be interpreted as the
Government of Ecuador interfering in the judicial processes of
either the United Kingdom or Sweden."
Assange arrived at the embassy in London's exclusive
Knightsbridge district asking for protection and complaining
that his home country of Australia had abandoned him and refused
to defend him, according to a statement from Ecuador's Foreign
"Such statements (from Australia) make it impossible for me
to return to my home country and puts me in a state of
helplessness by being requested to be interrogated by the
Kingdom of Sweden, where its top officials have openly attacked
me," the ministry quoted him as saying on its website.
According to Patino, Assange fears extradition "to a country
where espionage and treason are punished with the death
penalty". He appeared to be referring to the United States,
because Sweden does not have the death penalty. Neither Sweden
nor the United States has charged him with treason or spying.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in Mexico for the
G20 summit, said Australian consular officials would continue to
assist Assange, adding Australia opposed any extradition of
Australian citizens on charges which carry the death penalty.
"Let's be very clear about this. Australia opposes
extradition in death penalty cases. We do that for every
Australian citizen, we will do that for any Australian citizen,"
Gillard told reporters.
"Our consular officials will be in contact with him, and
also with Ecuador in London about this. But his decisions are
for him to make," Gillard said.
The Swedish Prosecution Authority said it had no information
other than that which had appeared in the media.
The lawyer for the two female former WikiLeaks volunteers
who made the complaints against Assange said he was not
surprised by Assange's latest move but expected Ecuador to
reject the asylum request.
"This (asylum request) is of course without any grounds ...
It is nonsense actually," lawyer Claes Borgstrom told Reuters.
"He wants to focus on Wikileaks, the CIA etc. It will not
change the situation, he will be extradited."
Britain's Supreme Court last week said Assange could be
extradited to Sweden in about two weeks' time, rejecting his
argument that a European arrest warrant issued by Swedish
prosecutors for his extradition was invalid..
The only recourse left to him in the courts is an appeal to
the European Court of Human Rights.
Assange, who has not been charged with any offence in Sweden
and denies any wrongdoing, has argued that the case is
politically motivated because the release of documents on his
website has angered the United States.
In 2010, WikiLeaks began releasing secret video footage and
thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, many of them about Iraq and
Afghanistan, in the largest leak of classified documents in U.S.
The silver-haired Assange spent nine days in jail in Britain
before being released on bail on Dec. 16, 2010, after his
supporters raised a surety of 200,000 pounds ($314,300).
Anti-censorship campaigners who backed Assange at one stage
included celebrities such as journalist John Pilger, film
director Ken Loach and socialite Jemima Khan.
As part of his bail conditions, he had to abide by a curfew,
report to police daily, and wear an electronic tag.
"There's been an organised campaign to undermine him in
recent months in Britain," the BBC quoted Assange's friend
Vaughan Smith as saying, "and he believed that if he was sent to
Sweden, he would be sent to America".
Smith put Assange up until last December.
Australian National University professor of international
law Don Rothwell said Assange could avoid the legal proceedings
in Sweden and any potential charges in the United States if
Ecuador granted him asylum.
He said an extradition treaty between Ecuador and the U.S.
did not cover political charges.
"The treaty provisions may not be broad enough to encompass
U.S. criminal charges on matters related to Assange's Wikileaks
activities and the publication of classified US government
documents," Rothwell said.
Wikileaks has faded from the headlines due to a dearth of
scoops and a blockade by credit card companies that has made
donations to the site almost impossible.
($1 = 0.6364 British pounds)
(Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Stockholm, Mark
Hosenball in Washington DC, Krista Hughes in Mexico city and
James Grubel in Canberra; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Daniel
Wallis; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)