Ecuador’s diplomatic protection of Julian Assange once allowed the small Andean nation’s leftist government to antagonize its U.S. foe and argue that it was defending free speech, while cracking down on the press at home.
But after seven years and a new government, that relationship frayed, as President Lenín Moreno sought to improve Ecuador’s relations with the U.S.
After calling the WikiLeaks founder an “inherited problem,” Mr. Moreno on Thursday revoked Mr. Assange’s asylum, allowing his arrest. Officials described him as an intolerable tenant at its London embassy, accusing him of blocking security cameras, mistreating guards and once spreading feces on the walls.
“The patience of Ecuador has reached its limit,” Mr. Moreno said.
Ecuadorian authorities raised the pressure on Friday, disclosing that they hadarrested a Swedish WikiLeaks associate a day earlieras part of its investigation into whether Mr. Assange tried to destabilize the government.
The man, a software developer named Ola Bini, had visited Mr. Assange at Ecuador’s embassy in London 12 times, said Interior Minister María Paula Romo, adding that prosecutors were still probing if he committed a crime.
Efforts to contact Mr. Bini weren’t successful and it couldn’t be determined if he had a lawyer. Ms. Romo said earlier this week that Russian hackers had set up shop in Ecuador.
“We aren’t going to allow Ecuador to be turned into a center for hacking,” she said. “And we can’t allow illegal activities developed in the country to harm citizens from Ecuador or other countries or any government.”
Public cracks in Ecuador’s patience with Mr. Assange emerged toward the end of the administration of Rafael Correa, the leftist leader who granted the asylum in 2012 and who criticized Mr. Moreno’s decision, calling him a traitor.
In October 2016, Mr. Correa temporarily restricted Mr. Assange’s internet access after WikiLeaks began publishing messages apparently sent and received by Hillary Clinton’s top aide John Podesta related to the 2016 U.S. election.
When he took over the presidency in 2017, Mr. Moreno, a former vice president under Mr. Correa, was expected to continue his predecessor’s policies, including asylum for Mr. Assange. However, he quickly took a different path, setting off a bitter feud between the two men and raising doubts about how long Mr. Assange would be allowed to remain at the embassy.
Central to Mr. Moreno’s shift was an interest in deepening ties with the U.S. Mr. Moreno, a 66-year-old who uses a wheelchair since being shot during a robbery two decades ago, ended Ecuador’s alliance with Venezuela and a leftist bloc of nations, choosing instead to pursue a trade deal with Washington.
He has sought to renegotiate Chinese oil-backed loans and signed a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund to shore up a troubled economy.
The new president described Mr. Assange as a “stone in our shoe” that was hurting Ecuador’s relations with other countries.
“This was something that many people thought was coming and at a time when Ecuador is really trying to get closer to the U.S. it makes sense,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank.
Mr. Moreno denied that Ecuador coordinated Mr. Assange’s eviction with the U.S., saying it was his country’s sovereign right to rescind his asylum. The U.S. Embassy in Quito didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ecuador began looking for ways to get Mr. Assange to leave. It granted him Ecuadorean citizenship in late 2017, hoping the U.K. would provide him with diplomatic status and immunity from arrest if he left the embassy. The U.K. government denied the request.
In early 2018, the government again restricted Mr. Assange’s communications, accusing him of breaking a written agreement not to meddle in the affairs of other countries. The decision came after Mr. Assange took to Twitter to criticize the detention of a former Catalan leader and the U.K. for expelling Russian diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy.
A few months later, Vice President Mike Pence visited Mr. Moreno in Quito to discuss trade and a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Ecuadorean officials continued to hold regular meetings with their U.S. counterparts in recent days.
“I think it is very unlikely they didn’t talk to the U.S. first” about ending Mr. Assange’s asylum, said Sebastian Hurtado, president of Profitas, a Quito political-risk consulting firm.
In October, the government laid out a list of rules that Mr. Assange would have to follow if he wanted to remain at the embassy, where he lived in a small corner room and received guests including the actress Pamela Anderson, who lashed out at governments in the U.S., U.K. and Ecuador.
“You are devils and liars and thieves,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Ecuador’s government required Mr. Assange to clean the bathroom and take better care of his pet cat. More substantially, it barred Mr. Assange from engaging in political meddling. But Mr. Moreno said he repeatedly broke that rule, pointing to WikiLeaks’ leaking of Vatican documents this year. He said Mr. Assange also installed “electronic and distortion equipment” that are prohibited in the building and accessed embassy security files without permission.
WikiLeaks alleged that Ecuador had conducted an espionage campaign against Mr. Assange and secretly cooperated with the U.S.
Ecuadorean business leaders hope removing Mr. Assange from the embassy will speed up talks for a trade agreement with Washington. Analysts say that Mr. Moreno’s decision will likely be welcomed by many Ecuadoreans who saw Mr. Assange as a nuisance.
“Most people are OK with just having this guy leave the embassy, finally,” said Mr. Hurtado, the analyst. “What I always wondered was why they took so long.”
|Wall Street Journal