Ecuador says it is reassessing its asylum for Julian Assange after WikiLeaks warned last week that the organization’s controversial founder faced imminent expulsion from Quito’s London embassy and arrest by the British authorities.
Foreign Minister Jose Valencia has remained coy about what Ecuador will decide, and when — amid repeated signs that Assange has worn out his welcome.
“The Ecuadoran state will determine what it should determine when it considers it appropriate,” Valencia told reporters in Quito.
So what’s next for Julian Assange, who has spent more than six years cooped up inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London.
Why is Assange there?-
Assange took refuge in the embassy in June 2012 having lost his appeal in Britain’s Supreme Court against extradition to Sweden over accusations of sexual assault. The Australian fought extradition on the grounds that it was part of a Washington plan to extradite him to the US and try him over WikiLeaks’ release of thousands of classified documents into the public domain.
Quito’s then-president Rafael Correa said Assange’s human rights could be at risk and granted him asylum in August.
However, Britain refused to give him safe conduct out of the embassy, given that he faced charges in London over violating his bail conditions.
Sweden’s state prosecutor finally abandoned the sexual assault case in 2017.
What’s Ecuador’s problem?
Ecuador’s attitude toward its guest in London changed with the arrival in power of Lenin Moreno. He has accused Assange of meddling in Ecuador’s internal and external affairs.
Assange is accused of trying to influence the 2016 US elections as well as the Catalan independence process in Spain.
Moreno temporarily cut his communications with the outside world in 2018.
But what could cost him his stay in the embassy is the government’s suspicion WikiLeaks hacked into Moreno and his family’s communications and leaked videos and private conversations, giving ammunition to his political foes.
Assange has wanted to remain a relevant “actor on the world stage,” said Katalina Barreiro of the Institute of Higher Studies in Quito, but he ended up breaking “the minimum code that an asylee must have — to not comment or involve himself in any type of political process.”
What is Assange’s legal status?
Assange’s status is complicated by the fact that he became an Ecuadoran citizen in 2017. The government even appointed him to a diplomatic post in the Moscow embassy as a means of getting him out of Britain with diplomatic immunity.
London rejected his new designation, however, so the appointment was canceled.
Ecuador could now use its right “to revoke the asylum as granted,” constitutional lawyer Rafael Oyarte told AFP. The government could also cancel his Ecuadoran nationality.
Amid signs of growing impatience with Assange, Quito last October tightened rules governing his stay in the embassy, including his visits and communications, and even insisted he be responsible for his personal hygiene.
Failure to comply would be cause for “termination of asylum,” according to the protocol.
Even if asylum is withdrawn, in theory the state is obliged to protect him against the possible intentions of other countries to submit him to life imprisonment or the death sentence.
“If someone violated his rights, Ecuador would have the duty to request that the violation be suspended,” former foreign minister Jose Ayala Lasso told AFP.
What if asylum is withdrawn?
Assange would have to leave the embassy even if he continues to hold Ecuadoran citizenship, unless he can demonstrate he needs protection and the country accepts that to be the case.
“Ecuador could tell him: Sir, you are no longer a person to whom Ecuador grants asylum. Please leave the embassy,” said Ayala Lasso.
International legal expert Mauricio Gandara said, in that case, Quito could give the Australian a deadline to leave voluntarily.
“They can tell him ‘You have 24 hours to leave.’ If after 24 hours he hasn’t left, the embassy will ask the British police to come in and take him away,” said Gandara, a former ambassador to Britain.
Once outside the embassy, Assange would be arrested for violating the conditions of his conditional release in 2012, when he was fighting extradition to Sweden.
Any eventual sentence “would not exceed six months,” according to Ecuador’s attorney general Inigo Salvador, adding that London had given assurances “he would not be deported or extradited to any other country.”