By Mark Hosenball
London (Reuters) - Julian Assange and his advisers are preparing to try to use Ecuador's decision to grant him diplomatic status to force Britain to declare him persona non grata and expel him, a source close to Assange said.
Reuters also has learned that as part of their continuing criminal investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks, investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently sought new information about years-old contacts between WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army private who leaked the website thousands of classified U.S. government documents.
Ecuador announced earlier this month it granted diplomatic status to Assange, who in 2012 took refuge in its London Embassy after British courts ruled he should be extradited to Sweden for questioning in a sexual molestation investigation.
Swedish authorities have now closed their molestation inquiry. But British authorities have indicated that if he left Ecuador's Embassy, Assange would still be arrested for violating bail conditions, which could put him in a British prison for up to three months.
Assange and his lawyers assert that if he did leave the Embassy, U.S. authorities would then produce criminal charges against him and seek his extradition to the United States, which they believe could result in a lengthy prison term for the WikiLeaks founder.
The source close to Assange said that his legal team were now working on filing a legal case with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, seeking to have Assange's Ecuadorean diplomatic status affirmed under international law. Britain's Foreign Office had no immediate comment.
Ecuador's Foreign Ministry said that only the foreign minister, who is traveling in Chile, was authorized to comment on the Assange standoff.
In a Sunday night television interview, President Lenin Moreno said the foreign ministry was continuing to seek intermediation that would help resolve the situation. "We hope to have a short term solution to this issue, which has really caused us problems," he said.
Depo Akande, an international law professor at Oxford University, said that Ecuador could argue that Britain had no right under international law to reject its declaration that Assange had diplomatic status.
"In principle, the U.K. cannot approve or disapprove" diplomatic status declarations by foreign governments other than for ambassadors or military attaches, Akande said. He said if Britain were ordered by the International Court to accept Ecuador's decision to treat Assange as a diplomat, and were then to declare him persona non grata, it would then "have to give him facilities to leave" the country unhindered.
Meanwhile, one of Assange's former close associates from WikiLeaks' early days said German criminal investigators recently contacted him seeking answers to questions they had received from the FBI.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, once regarded with Assange as a WikiLeaks co-founder, told Reuters he was contacted in November by investigators from the federal criminal bureau (BKA), Germany's equivalent of the FBI.
He said the BKA told him they had been asked by the FBI to question him regarding Assange's and WikiLeaks' contacts with Chelsea Manning, who while a U.S. Army private then named Bradley Manning and stationed in Iraq purloined hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables and delivered them to WikiLeaks.
Manning, who was granted clemency by former U.S. President Barack Obama, was released in May from a U.S. military prison in Kansas where she had served a seven year prison term for passing secrets to WikiLeaks. Manning, who came out as transgender shortly after her sentencing, recently announced she would seek the Democratic Party's nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland.
Domscheit-Berg said that representatives of a BKA squad that deals with cyber crime and espionage told him the FBI were seeking fresh information about how actively Assange had been involved in persuading Manning to leak U.S. secrets. He said he informed the BKA he was not interested in helping the FBI.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball in London; additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)