By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is determined to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden and has made that clear to Ecuador, which is sheltering the founder of WikiLeaks inside its London embassy while it considers his asylum request, British authorities said on Tuesday.
The Australian, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning over alleged sexual assault, has been holed up inside the embassy for eight weeks. He sought refuge there after his lengthy legal battle to avoid extradition from Britain to Sweden failed.
"The UK has a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden. We are determined to fulfill this obligation," said the Foreign Office after Ecuador announced on Monday it hoped to announce its decision on Assange's asylum request this week.
The former computer hacker, who shot to fame in 2010 when WikiLeaks published thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables, is in a legal and diplomatic conundrum.
He denies committing sex crimes against two former WikiLeaks supporters and fears that Sweden would be only a stop on the way to the United States, where he believes authorities want to punish him for the diplomatic damage wrought by his website.
But it is unclear how obtaining asylum in Ecuador would help. He is in breach of his British bail conditions and will be arrested if he steps out of the embassy, which is located in London's ritzy Knightsbridge area, miles away from any airport.
"A grant of asylum from Ecuador would not protect him from extradition to Sweden," said lawyer Roger Gherson, an expert on British immigration law and related human rights issues.
"It's not a get-out-of-jail-free card for any conduct anywhere in the world," Gherson told Reuters.
It appears unlikely that the British government would give Assange safe passage to an airport as that would mean going against the Swedish arrest warrant and a ruling by Britain's own Supreme Court that the warrant was valid. It would also mean letting Assange get away with breaching his bail terms.
British and Ecuadorean authorities have been discussing the case, but neither has indicated what the solution could be.
"CLUB OF THE PERSECUTED"
"I don't understand how the British government has allowed it to reach the stage that it's reached," said retired British ambassador Oliver Miles, describing the case as "peculiar".
He said the British government should have asked Ecuador to hand over Assange as soon as it learnt that he had sought refuge in the embassy. If the answer had been "no," the ambassador should have been threatened with expulsion.
"Why not? The alternative is to say to every criminal in London 'All you've got to do is to pay a small sum to some ambassador and you can have a free ride,'" Miles told Reuters.
Assange, who presents himself as a champion of free speech seeking to expose the dark secrets of governments, has not said in public why he decided to seek asylum in Ecuador, a country accused by human rights groups of seeking to muzzle the media.
The only known link between him and the South American country is an interview Assange conducted with President Rafael Correa on Kremlin-sponsored TV channel Russia Today in May.
The pair traded flattering comments during the 25-minute interview and Correa joked with Assange that he had joined "the club of the persecuted". Correa, like the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia, is a staunch opponent of what he sees as U.S. imperialism in Latin America.
Correa said on Monday he sympathized with Assange but also respected the British legal system and international law. He hoped to announce his decision on the asylum request by the end of the week.
He said authorities in Quito had been looking into the situation in Sweden in order to gauge whether it was possible that Assange could be sent from there to the United States.
Assange's mother Christine visited Ecuador two weeks ago and met the foreign minister there to press her son's case. She told reporters she had handed over evidence that Washington was bent on getting hold of him, but did not say what the evidence was.
A tearful Christine Assange showed reporters photographs of her son as a toddler and said she was afraid that he could face the death penalty if he did end up in the United States.
Assange had not been charged with any offence in Sweden or in the United States, and U.S. authorities have given no indication that they wished to seek his extradition.
(Additional reporting by Li-mei Hoang and Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Jon Hemming)