The ever-confusing and long-winded soap opera that is the life and times of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, just celebrated its thousandth or so episode when the Ecuadorian embassy, the place he has been hiding in for the past couple of months, finally decided to grant him political asylum.
Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy after losing his appeal for extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in relation to allegations of two instances of sexual assault. Just after releasing the diplomatic cables that stunned the world and heaped embarrassment on almost every nation on the planet for one reason or another, he was arrested in the UK in 2010, after two Swedish women claimed that he had sexually molested them. His supporters cried conspiracy, which sort of made sense, especially after an American government official called for him to be tried as a terrorist and executed. Others, however, rubbished the claims, saying he has questions to answer and that the timing was coincidental.
Either way, the whole situation has now reached new levels of bizarre. Assange broke his bail conditions by entering the embassy where he is now protected under the Vienna Convention, which states that diplomatic embassies are the sovereign territory of the nation they belong to. In short, he can't be touched. Now that he's been granted asylum, he should technically be able to leave the embassy and get on a plane to Ecuador without any problems. But that, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was simply not going to happen. So, they began by threatening to arrest him as soon as he stepped out, presumably for the first time in two months. Poor guy, his rickets must be pretty bad by now.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, the FCO then announced they were considering actually going into the building and dragging him out themselves, at the risk of ending up with a major scandal on their hands.
I turned up to the embassy this afternoon, around the time the asylum announcement was due to be made, and came across an army of the world's press slavering for a glimpse of the silver fox, and a group of his supporters waiting to hear the verdict. From what I heard, a little before my arrival some of his supporters were arrested for refusing to get off the pavement in front of the embassy, which basically led to everyone being piled into a "free speech zone" on the opposite side of the road. At this point, people started to look slightly bored.
But at least it didn't seem like Assange has had to worry about food. I'm starting to suspect that the whole no-sunlight-pizza-diet routine might be the reason why he's been so reluctant to come out in public all this time.
His supporters were a mixed bunch of Occupiers, crusties, intellectuals and Ecuadorians. Was Assange their new-age Messiah or just an honest guy who stirred up the hornet's nest? Predictably enough, the first guy I spoke to was Anonymous, from Anonymous, who was desperately trying to convince everyone he was Julian Assange.
"I'm here to support Julian Assange, I've been down here every other weekend, because I believe we are being given history lessons, and how can we be sure these lessons are true? It all relies on the truth, and on people like Assange to get us the right version of history," he said.
"I'd like to think the cops won't go in and get him, and I think the Ecuadorian embassy said what they said to get the whole world's attention on this situation so that this doesn't happen. What worries me is this law that the government are now saying they'll use to get access to the embassy. Why wasn't this announced when he went there in the first place?
"I'm hoping that Assange will get in a car and just drive straight to the airport, but if the police stop him from doing that, then there's quite a few people here today who are happy to get arrested in order to keep that from happening."
Many are sceptical that this massive police operation and strong rhetoric from the FCO is not just about one man facing questioning over sexual assault allegations. Many believe that once extradited to Sweden, Assange will then be extradited to America where he is faced with allegations of espionage, a charge that could end in the death penalty.
One of those people was Chris Edgette, an American management consultant. "I'm an American who disagrees with the prosecution of Julian Assange and this whole event wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for American interest in indicting Assange. This is clearly not just about a sex crime in Sweden. I'm upset over America's attitude towards the free press. We claim we support it, but at the moment we are about to prosecute someone who is not a US citizen for crimes not committed in the US. On top of that, we potentially have a secret indictment led by my senator Diane Feinstein, who doesn't represent me. That's why I had to come down." I wasn't sure that was even legal but Chris assured me so, "Oh yeah, part of the reason I'm here is because we have secret laws in the US. Parts of the Patriot Act are classified, we have secret courts, the NSA is spying on citizens and we've lost habeas corpus. All of this in the last 15 years. When I was a kid, stuff like that is what we said the communists did."
Much of the talk of the day centred on the question of whether the police would follow up the FCO's threat to enter the embassy and arrest Assange, but Chris wasn't convinced. "I think that's very unlikely, it would put every US and UK embassy in the world at risk. It basically says that we are opposed to the sovereignty of diplomatic embassies. I think all this is just to scare Ecuador into denying him asylum."
Officially, neither the UK nor Sweden can ever extradite someone to the US when there is a risk of them facing the death penalty, as both nations are against capital punishment. Do they just want to charge him with sexual assault, then, or are they about to sack their laws off and send him anyway? Whatever the case, it looks like they'll have to wait a little longer.
Ecuadorian FM was set to announce his verdict at 1PM, but the little tease kept us waiting a good 30 minutes more, in the rain, while carrying expensive camera equipment. At the end, a huge cheer came from the crowd following the announcement that Assange was to be given asylum.
At this point, one of his supporters gave a speech for the TV press, who seemed pretty desperate to get anything they could after having spent a good five hours filming the facade of a building. "Julian Assange we are with you. We call on the UK government to immediately lift their persecution and stop these extradition proceedings, and let Julian Assange walk free. If you want some decency and respect, show respect for Assange and stop trying to bully Ecuador. We agree with their decision and Ecuador is not a British colony, get used to it."
So there you have it, Assange gets to stay in his Ecuadorian fortress for god knows how long. The U.K. government is still saying it will arrest him at some point, whether that means they'll go in and get him – which is now apparently technically possible – or wait for him to come out. Assange could, of course, smuggle himself into some diplomatic baggage or start a tunnel to Ecuador or stay there for 15 years like that Hungarian Cardinal did during the Cold War.
Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston