LONDON — It was a warning meant to remind Ecuador that Britain’s patience has limits. But as the stalemate over Julian Assange settled in Friday, it appeared London’s veiled threat that it could storm Ecuador’s embassy and drag Assange out has backfired — drawing supporters to the mission where the WikiLeaks founder is holed up and prompting angry denunciations from Ecuador and elsewhere.
Experts and ex-diplomats say Britain’s Foreign Office, which warned Ecuador of a little known law that would allow it to side-step usual diplomatic protocols, messed up by issuing a threat it couldn’t back up.
“It was a big mistake,” said former British ambassador Oliver Miles. “It puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate.
The 24-year-old is currently being detained at an army base awaiting military trial. He has been indicted on 22 counts relating to the leaks, including charges of aiding the enemy.
The crime carries a maximum penalty of death, although prosecutors have indicated that they will not seek the ultimate punishment.
In his address on Sunday, Assange noted that Manning has now spent more than 800 days behind bars without trial.
For a large chunk of that time Manning was kept in conditions that the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, has described as cruel and inhuman.
The young soldier's lawyers are current seeking to have the charges against Manning dismissed, citing the US army's "flagrant violation" of his right not to be punished prior to trial.
His civilian lawyer David Coombs has lodged legal documents detailing his treatment at the Quantico marine base in Virginia, where Manning was kept before being transferred to a softer prison under huge pressure from human rights activists.
The so-called Article 13 motion revealed that for months after his arrest in May 2010, the soldier was held in a 6 foot by 8 foot cell for 23 or 24 hours a day. In addition, when not sleeping, the suspect was banned from lying down, or even using a wall to support him.
It also claimed that Manning was punished through "degradation and humiliation", notably by forcing him to stand outside his cell naked during a morning inspection. This, his lawyer claims, was "retaliatory punishment" for speaking out over his treatment.
It has been suggested that the harsh treatment was used to intimidate Manning into a plea deal with US prosecutors, under which he would testify against Assange at a future date.