Assange, an Australian, shot to international prominence in 2010 after he began publishing a trove of American diplomatic and military secrets - including a quarter of a million U.S. Embassy cables that shed a harsh light on the backroom dealings of U.S. diplomats. Amid the ferment, two Swedish women accused him of sexual assault; Assange has been fighting extradition to Sweden ever since.
Interpol, the international police agency based in Lyon, France, issued a statement late Thursday saying Assange remains on the equivalent of its most-wanted list, the Ecuadorean decision notwithstanding.
The saga took its latest twist Thursday, when Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announced that he had granted asylum to Assange, who has been holed up in the coastal nation's embassy since June 19. He said Ecuador was taking action because Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.
That was a nod to the fears expressed by Assange and others that the Swedish sex case is merely the opening gambit in a Washington-orchestrated plot to make him stand trial in the United States - something disputed by both Swedish authorities and the women involved.
In a message posted to its Twitter account, WikiLeaks said Assange would make a public statement outside Ecuador's embassy on Sunday afternoon - potentially offering British police the chance to arrest him. The secret-spilling website did not immediately respond to attempts to contact it for details.
Patino said he tried to secure guarantees from the Americans, the British, and the Swedes that Assange would not be extradited to the United States, but was rebuffed by all three. If Assange were extradited to the United States, "he would not have a fair trial, could be judged by special or military courts, and it's not implausible that cruel and degrading treatment could be applied, that he could be condemned to life in prison, or the death penalty," Patino said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she did not accept Assange's claim, or Ecuador's acceptance of it, that he could face persecution in the United States. "I reject that completely," she said Thursday.
Under Ecuador's asylum offer, Assange is not permitted to make political statements or grant interviews of a political nature, restrictions that are standard for anyone granted asylum, said an Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Ecuador did not grant political but rather diplomatic asylum to Assange.
"Political asylum would imply that Great Britain is persecuting him or threatens to persecute him," said Robert Sloane, international law professor at Boston University. By granting diplomatic asylum, Ecuador is keeping the door open to political negotiations.
Assange, 41, who watched Ecuador's foreign minister announce the move in a live televised news conference, praised Ecuador's "courage."