WASHINGTON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faced a "difficult choice" in defying a British police order for extradition to Sweden, one of his lawyers said Friday.
Assange was confronted with risks no matter which path he took and is gambling that Ecuador will look sympathetically at his request for political asylum, said Michael Ratner, a human rights attorney who is on Assange's legal defense team.
The 40-year-old Australian refused to comply with a British police order to turn himself in for extradition to Sweden and instead walked into the Ecuadoran embassy in London on June 19, asking for asylum.
"He had two very difficult choices. I think he would go to Sweden immediately if he got assurances from the United States that there was not going to be a prosecution," Ratner told AFP.
But the US government would have to provide a clear guarantee with no "minced words," he said.
The United States has said it has no role in the extradition dispute.
Assange faces questioning in Sweden over sexual assault allegations but he denies the allegations and insists it is part of a politically-motivated effort to get him extradited to the United States, where he fears he could be put on trial for espionage or other crimes.
Confronted with the option of being transferred to a Swedish prison without the possibility of seeking political asylum, Assange made an understandable decision, Ratner said.
"Neither (option) is very palatable," said Ratner, president emeritus of the Center of Constitutional Rights who has represented detainees at the US-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"He made a very difficult choice for himself."
Assange's concerns that he could be prosecuted in a US court for serious crimes were well-founded, given details that have emerged about a grand jury investigation, public warnings from top US officials and reported questioning of WikiLeaks associates, according to Ratner.
US officials have refrained from making strident public comments about Assange in recent months, he said.
"I think they're quiet now because there's a grand jury or an indictment and they don't want to prejudice any ultimate trial. That would be my best guess."
Ratner said Assange could face difficult conditions in any "pre-trial confinement" in the United States, similar to those imposed on Army private Bradley Manning, charged with handing over a trove of secret files to Assange's WikiLeaks website.
WikiLeaks enraged Washington by publishing a flood of secret information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as more than 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables.
His supporters paint him as a whistle-blowing hero but his critics denounce him as a traitorous anarchist.
His defense lawyer expressed cautious optimism that Ecuador would approve Assange's request for asylum.
"I'm very hopeful about it, I'll put it that way. They have the ability and the president and the country have the guts to stand up to the United States," said Ratner, citing Ecuador's decision to close a US military base in 2008.
He added: "Of all the countries that would be one of the most favorable (to Assange's request), it would be Ecuador."
Assange is beyond the reach of the police as long as he stays inside Ecuador's embassy on diplomatic territory.
Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa, who has often been at odds with Washington and offered Assange asylum in 2010, has said that the South American country will take its time considering the application.