Ecuador is mulling WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s request for political asylum and “will take the necessary time, with absolute seriousness and absolute responsibility,” its president said late Wednesday.
In a twist reminiscent of Cold War espionage drama, Julian Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London on Tuesday after Britain’s Supreme Court turned down a last-ditch appeal of his extradition to Sweden.
The 40-year-old Australian national is wanted by Swedish prosecutors for questioning about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women in 2010.
He maintains that the allegations are politically motivated and that Sweden will deport him to the United States to be put on trial – and possibly face the death penalty – over WikiLeaks’ disclosure of tens of thousands of secret diplomatic cables.
Ecuador’s anti-American stance
But why did Assange choose Ecuador of all countries?
The fugitive probably remembered that its leftist government had briefly offered him residency in 2010 at the height of the WikiLeaks furore, though it later backed off.
A stronger argument, though, is the strong anti-American stance of the Ecuadorean government, according to Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America specialist at France’s Insitute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).
“[Assange] turned to the only embassy that will not hand him over to the US, the one most resistant to US pressure” he told FRANCE 24. “He could not seek refuge at the embassies of Mexico or Colombia, for example, since the former is a member of [free-trade bloc] NAFTA and the latter a strong ally of the US. Either one would have handed him over to the US within days.”
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has also made a name for himself as a vocal critic of the powerful, including the American government and oil companies.
“Correa is still rankled by the Chevron case [the US-based oil company refuses to pay a multibillion-dollar fine to clean up contamination from drilling and production in the Amazon jungle],” Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky added.
“Ecuador is also a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), a group of Latin-American states very critical of US presence in the region. Two months ago, Quito even refused to attend the Summit of the Americas in Colombia because Cuba had not been invited.”
Ecuador was also the only country to expel a diplomat as a result of allegations made by WikiLeaks. US ambassador Heather Hodges was asked to leave Quito in April 2011 after the whistle-blowing website released a US diplomatic cable alleging police corruption in Ecuador. Diplomatic relations have since been restored.
‘Club of the persecuted’
Yet the Andean nation is hardly known as a beacon for free speech, and some found it a strange choice for the founder of a whistle-blowing website.
“He is asking for protection of freedom of expression for journalists, but he is asking for asylum in a country that is basically censoring newspapers,” Frank La Rue, a UN special investigator for freedom of expression, told Reuters.
Since taking office in 2007 President Correa has repeatedly clashed with Ecuador’s private media, who have historically served the interests of the country’s economic elite. His opponents say he is simply trying to silence dissenting voices.
Earlier this year, he won a high-profile libel lawsuit against the country’s biggest newspaper, El Universo, while three of the paper’s executives and a columnist were sentenced to three years in prison and fines of more than $40 million. The president later pardoned them following international pressure.
Assange expressed sympathy with Correa’s war on media while interviewing him last April on Russia Today, an English-language TV channel sponsored by the Kremlin.
“Welcome to the club of the persecuted!” Correa told Assange at the end of the interview.
But the Ecuadorean president sounded cautious when commenting on Assange’s bid on Wednesday. “Ecuador is a country that defends the right to life; we have to see whether there is a threat to Julian Assange’s life,” he told AFP.
He could not help playing to the gallery with a last stab at the media, though. “[Assange] is crazy! Imagine asking for asylum in a totalitarian dictatorship, in a country where there is no freedom of speech, because that’s what some media are saying about our country,” he mockingly told El Ciudadano, Ecuador’s state-owned news website.
Ecuadorean deputy Foreign Minister Marco Albuja told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he expected a final decision on Thursday.
By diplomatic convention, British police cannot enter the Ecuadorian embassy in London without authorisation from Ecuador. But even if Quito granted him asylum, Assange would need a safe-conduct to reach the airport.
Having breached his bail conditions (one of which was to remain at his bail address every night), he would expose himself to arrest by leaving the embassy.