By Estelle Shirbon and Maria Golovnina
LONDON (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has no way of leaving his refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London without being arrested, even if Quito grants him asylum shortly, lawyers say.
The Australian has been in the embassy for eight weeks since losing a legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted to stand trial for rape.
Assange denies the accusations made by two female WikiLeaks supporters. He fears Sweden could send him on to the United States, where he believes authorities want to punish him for publishing thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks in 2010 in a major embarrassment for Washington.
President Rafael Correa, who is openly sympathetic to Assange, is expected to decide on his asylum request this week. However, approval would offer no legal protection in Britain where police will arrest him once they get a chance.
"The question of asylum is arguably a red herring," said former British government lawyer Carl Gardner.
Assange, who is also liable to arrest for skipping bail, would still have to find a way of getting from central London to South America without passing through British territory.
"I can't see the UK backing down and just allowing him safe passage out of the country," said Rebecca Niblock, an extradition specialist at London law firm Kingsley Napley.
"I think the UK will see their obligations under the European extradition system as overriding any diplomatic relations with Ecuador, who haven't really been considering their diplomatic relations with the UK, apparently."
"CLIMB OUT OF A WINDOW"
Assange would be protected from arrest if travelling in a diplomatic car, but the embassy is on the first floor of a building that is being watched by police day and night.
The tall red-brick block just behind the Harrods department store also houses the Colombian embassy and private apartments. A police van was parked outside the main entrance on Wednesday and police officers were patrolling the area in pairs.
The property has several gated entrances and a private car park, but the Ecuadorean embassy is not linked internally with any of them, making the front entrance its only point of exit, a security manager at the building told Reuters.
"There is no other exit. He is going to have to come out of the main entrance," said the manager, who asked not to be named. "There is no way to bring a vehicle in because the car park is private and it is not connected in any way to their premises."
He added: "He can climb out of a window, of course, but there are CCTV cameras everywhere."
Even if he somehow managed to get out of the building and into a waiting car unnoticed by police, he would have to leave the vehicle at some point to board a flight out of Britain, offering more opportunities for his arrest.
Other scenarios lawyers are discussing on the Internet include smuggling him out in a diplomatic bag, which would be illegal, or appointing him as an Ecuadorean diplomat to give him immunity. But lawyers and diplomats said neither was realistic.
Even if Assange were willing to try his luck packed in a crate all the way to Quito, a risky plan by any measure, it seems unlikely Ecuador would attempt such a scheme.
Nigeria tried it in 1984, when it had a former minister accused of corruption kidnapped in London and shipped out in a crate, but the plan was foiled and ridicule ensued.
FEARS OF DEATH PENALTY UNFOUNDED
A diplomatic appointment by Ecuador in London would not help either because Britain would have to approve that, and it has no incentive to do so.
The possibility of appointing Assange as an Ecuadorean envoy to the United Nations has been raised, but that would be open to legal challenge.
Assange has not said publicly why he chose to seek refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy. Whatever his motivations, lawyers said his supporters' warnings that he could face the death penalty if sent to the United States were unfounded.
"There may be people in the USA who think he should be tried for capital crimes, convicted, and executed," wrote lawyer Francis FitzGibbon on his blog. "But while he remains in the jurisdiction of the UK or Sweden, that's not going to happen."
Both countries are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prevents them from extraditing anybody to a country where they would risk the death penalty.
The United States would have to give assurances that Assange would not face ill treatment or death in order to obtain his extradition from either London or Stockholm.
If Assange's main motivation is fear of a transfer to the United States, his determination to remain in Britain rather than going to Sweden to defend himself is puzzling.
"Why would the U.S. not just request his extradition from here where it's pretty easy? It's not easier from Sweden," said Niblock.
The British government has said it was determined to fulfill its legal obligation to extradite Assange to Sweden. Britain's Supreme Court has ruled the Swedish arrest warrant was valid and Assange should be sent to Stockholm.
Before he went to the embassy, Assange was free on bail pending the outcome of Sweden's extradition request. By holing up in the embassy, he has breached his bail conditions.
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by David Stamp)