Why does Ecuador want Assange out of its London embassy?
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Has Ecuador run out of patience with Julian Assange?
In his first year in office, Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, called Assange a “hacker”, an “inherited problem” and a “stone in the shoe”. The language could not be clearer. Moreno has made it plain that the world’s most famous lodger has overstayed his welcome in Ecuador’s London embassy.
Nearly six years ago, it was a different story. When Ecuador granted Assange political asylum on 16 August 2012, the country’s then foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, said Ecuador believed the WikiLeaks founder’s fear of persecution was legitimate and praised “his dedicated defence of freedom of expression” in a speech in Quito.
But what was expected to be a stopover turned into a lengthy sojourn and Assange became one of the world’s most high-profile fugitives. During the past six years, he has refused to step out of the embassy building, fearing he would be arrested by British police and extradited to the US for questioning over WikiLeaks’ activities.
Sweden dropped its investigation into alleged sexual offences in May 2017, saying “all possibilities to conduct the investigation were exhausted”. However, he remains subject to arrest in the UK for jumping bail. Even his one-time champion Rafael Correa, who was president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, recently told journalists in Madrid that Assange’s “days were numbered”. Correa said Moreno, his former protege with whom he is now bitterly at odds, would “throw [Assange] out of the embassy at the first pressure from the United States”.
Why has Ecuador changed its mind about him?
Assange’s behaviour has not endeared him to his hosts. For instance, his tweets in favour of Catalan independence are said to have annoyed the Spanish government, souring relations between Madrid and Quito.
In 1940 the elected president of Catalonia, Lluís Companys, was captured by the Gestapo, at the request of Spain, delivered to them and executed. Today, German police have arrested the elected president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, at the request of Spain, to be extradited.
The publication by WikiLeaks of emails connected to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election may be another reason why Ecuador’s foreign minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, said at the start of this year that Assange’s continued stay was “unsustainable”.
Moreno has been seeking to build bridges with the US, restoring trade ties that were damaged in recent years.
A poll in March showed 76.2% of Ecuadorians wanted the government to expel Assange from the embassy.
How can Ecuador get him out of the embassy?
In March, Ecuador cut off Assange’s internet connection, saying it had acted because he had breached an agreement not to issue messages that might interfere with other states. In a statement, the government said his behaviour on social media “put at risk the good relations [Ecuador] maintains with the United Kingdom, with the other states of the European Union, and with other nations”.
Ecuador seems to be hoping that Assange’s already uncomfortable confinement will become intolerable.
Are there any other options?
It is hard to see how Assange can leave the embassy and not end up being arrested for breach of bail, which could lead to him being imprisoned.
Ecuador has explored a number of other ideas, none of which seems feasible.
In January, its foreign ministry said Assange had been made an Ecuadorian citizen in an attempt to resolve the impasse over his continued stay at the embassy. The UK Foreign Office responded by saying: “Ecuador knows that the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice.”
Espinosa is one of two candidates campaigning to be elected the 73rd president of the UN general assembly next month. Some in Ecuador have speculated that she might appoint Assange as Ecuador’s United Nations representative, in order to get him UN diplomatic status so he can leave the UK. However, the foreign ministry has said if Espinosa is elected, she would not be responsible for Assange’s case.
Intelligence service documents seen by the Guardian suggest the UN idea has previously been considered. Assange’s nomination as Ecuador’s representative to the UN would afford him diplomatic immunity while travelling to UN meetings around the world, one document said.
It also suggested trying to smuggle him out in a diplomatic vehicle, but accepted the fact that to do so he would have to leave the embassy, and risk being detained, before getting into the car. British police ended a costly 24-hour guard of the embassy in October 2015, but the building remains under covert surveillance.
Rafael Correa: president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017
Correa came to power in 2007 at the tail end of the “pink tide” that swept through Latin America, ushering in leftist leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Correa styled himself as an anti-imperialist, shunning what was regarded as US interference in the region.
He won three elections and changed the constitution while courting, at the peak of his powers, the highest approval rating of any leader in the country’s history.
The US-trained economist faced criticism when he announced in 2008 that Ecuador was officially defaulting on billions of dollars of foreign debt, forcing the country to seek unfavourable loans, particularly from China.
Julian Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in central London since June 2012. He initially sought asylum following a series of legal challenges through British courts to a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden, where he was accused of rape and sexual assault, which he denies.
In February, a judge upheld a warrant for his arrest for skipping bail, meaning that although Swedish prosecutors have dropped their investigation into alleged sexual offences, Assange faces being arrested if he leaves the embassy, and fears he would be subsequently extradited to the US for questioning about WikiLeaks’ activities.
But it was Correa’s authoritarian style and constant attacks against the press that drew more international opprobrium. He brought in a communications law that obliged media outlets to carry government messages, and used his weekly TV shows to personally attack journalists, often tearing up newspapers.
Correa came to wider international attention after offering asylum to Assange in 2012. He left behind a wealthier and fairer country, but a more divided one.
Lenín Moreno: president of Ecuador
Moreno narrowly won the 2017 election as Correa’s successor and the candidate for his Alianza País party. Some dismissed Moreno as a puppet of his domineering predecessor, but he soon proved to be his own man.
Moreno, the world’s only head of state to use a wheelchair, made good on a pledge to tackle graft by sacking the former vice-president Jorge Glas, a close ally of Correa, with Glas later sentenced to six years in jail for corruption.
He criticised Correa for mismanaging the economy and leaving the country saddled with debt, mostly to China.
The result is a bitter feud between former allies. Moreno, who served as Correa’s vice-president from 2007 to 2013, has repeatedly hinted that he wants to remove Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
He has also stressed that his respect for press freedom is one of his key differences with his predecessor.
Moreno has a fondness for singing in public and making jokes. He has written books about humour, which he used to alleviate depression when he was left partially paralysed after being shot in a robbery in 1998.
He is leading advocate of disabled rights in Ecuador, for which he was nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2012. Moreno was appointed the UN special envoy on disability and accessibility in December 2013.
This article was amended on 16 May 2018. An earlier version said that Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation because they were unable to question Assange. Assange was questioned at the Ecuadorian embassy in November 2016.
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