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Has the UK threatened to storm the Ecuadorean embassy to arrest Julian Assange?

Er… do we have to do this one? It’s complicated and messy.

There’s really no way to answer this definitively at the moment. What’s known: the Ecuadorean foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, claimed that such a threat had been made. This is apparently based on a diplomatic letter from the British embassy in Quito, which is (reportedly) this one here. Here is an (unverified) English translation of the letter. The Foreign Office says it was merely intended to keep the Ecuadoreans informed. Is that a threat? It’s certainly not an overt threat of planned or imminent action - the tone of the letter is stern but broadly aimed at making conciliatory gestures; it merely notes that the UK government believes it would have the legal right to enter the embassy premises to conduct an arrest should all other diplomatic efforts fail. But then, when in diplomatic language is an overt threat ever made? Ultimately, it’s a matter of interpretation, in which most people’s interpretations seem to be aligning with their previously held opinions of the Assange case, with sound and fury heavily outweighing actual facts. 

What seems clear is that the main aim of the letter is to dissuade Ecuador from unilaterally announcing a decision on the Assange asylum case before the UK-Ecuadorean diplomatic negotiations have been allowed to run their course - as a Guardian report had suggested they were going to. Speculative interpretations of the facts have included: this being sabre-rattling on the part of the UK; this being sabre-rattling on the part of Ecuador; and this being mutual sabre-rattling to disguise the fact that a deal has already been reached, and that the letter is merely a way of providing Ecuador with cover.

The Ecuadorean foreign minister says that the decision has now been made, and will be announced at 1pm UK time on Thursday.

Police have been seen entering the embassy building tonight (although possibly not the embassy itself, which is only one flat within the building), but for what purpose is unclear. And reports suggest the entry was not forced, as phrases like “storm” and “raid” would suggest. No arrests appear to have been made.

Legal blogger Carl Gardner lays out the actual law here - and while the UK does retain such a right under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, he is unsure that the apparent UK interpretation of the international law regarding how such a decision can be made is sound. However, as comparable events are rare and the case law is even more limited, such assessments of the legal situation are necessarily speculative. Gardner does additionally suggest that such a step would be a counterproductive move on the part of the UK government, not least because it would likely allow Assange to seek a judicial review, tying the case up in the courts for even longer.

One super-pedantic point: whatever the interpretation of the “threat”, strictly speaking no storming of an embassy would take place, as the legal mechanism for allowing the entry would be to strip the premises of their embassy status. There is no evidence that this process - which in any case would require a week’s notice to be given - has been set in motion.

This is why we normally prefer trying to verify pictures of Spider-Man.

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