In the Media

Julian Assange asylum row: a history of diplomatic rifts

PUBLISHED August 16, 2012

In 1956, Catholic cardinal and opponent of communism Jozsef Mindszenty walked into the US embassy in Budapest and claimed political asylum. He had previously been imprisoned for treason, but was freed during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. After claiming asylum at the diplomatic mission, he lived there for 15 years unable to leave the grounds before agreeing to exile in Vienna.

In 1960, a unit of the Israeli security service undertook to capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann from his new secret home in Argentina. After a length process to track him down and confirm his identity, they feared diplomatic extradition would be highly difficult to obtain and planned instead to kidnap and smuggle him out of the country. Staging a car breakdown, officers snatched him on the way home from work, bound and gagged him before driving him to a safe house. They later drugged him and dressed him in an air steward's uniform and flew him to Israel. Despite the breach of Argentina's sovereignty, Eichmann's trial went ahead. He was found guilty and hanged.

In 1966, Josef Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva left the Soviet Union to scatter her late partner's ashes in India. Once she was in New Delhi, she walked into the US Embassy to claim political asylum, burning her passport, denouncing communism and calling her father a "moral and spiritual monster". She moved to the US and changed her name to Lana Peters, going on to marry three times and have three children.

In 1984, the Nigerian government attempted to kidnap Umaru Dikko, a former transport minister who was living in the UK in exile, and smuggle him out in a diplomatic bag. He was taken while out for a walk and drugged, before being placed in a crate. Dikko's secretary, who had witnesses the kidnapping, alerted the authorities, which found the boxes were not labelled as diplomatic property in line with international law. They were therefore able to open them without violating the conventions, whereupon Dikko was found to be uninjured. Great British expelled two members of the Nigerian High Commission, and four men were charged and convicted of the crime.

In 1989, the then-dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, fled to the Vatican Embassy when US forces invaded to attempt to topple the regime, Called Operation Nifty Package, American troops removed Noriega from power and he sought refuge in the Holy See's diplomatic mission. The US forces then set up large speakers around the compound to play loud music throughout the day and night. He surrendered after ten days and was later found guilty of drug trafficking.

In 2000, relations between Zimbabwe and Britain deteriorated after Mugabe's government broke open an impounded diplomatic bag in Harare. Foreign Office minister called the breach of the international convention "grave", adding it was "not the act of a civilised country". The bag, which contained equipment to screen diplomatic communications, was reported to have been opened as a result of unfounded fears it could contain arms.

In 2012, Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and fled to the US embassy in Beijing. A self-taught lawyer, he had previously been sentenced to lengthy periods in jail. He was known by international human rights groups for defending the rights of poor farmers, the disabled and exposing forced abortions and sterilisations. In May 2012, after negotiations with the Chinese government, he was granted a US visa with his wife and children and was permitted to travel to New York.

In February 2012, Chinese police chief Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, China, and revealed the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. He is reported to have worn a wig to reach the building safely and is alleged to have carried a piece of Mr Heywood's heart as proof of the crime. The case was reopened, with politician's wife Gu Kailai put on trial. When Wang Lijun left the consulate, he was taken by Chinese officials and is now reported to have been put on secret trial behind closed doors.