WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange: Ecuador’s awkward guest who just won’t leave
For Ecuador, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has become the worst kind of guest: he makes messes he doesn’t clean up, he spills secrets, he meddles, and there’s no telling when he will leave.
Four years after Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, the tension between host and guest is plain to see.
Ecuador said Tuesday it has cut Assange’s internet access because of leaks by his anti-secrecy website “impacting on the US election” — a reference to the release of a damaging trove of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The leaks have put Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa’s government in an awkward position.
Back in June 2012, offering Assange refuge was a waggish way for Correa, a radical economist, to thumb his nose at the United States, the domineering neighbor that the Latin American left has long loved to hate.
WikiLeaks had infuriated Washington by leaking hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables and secret files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In granting Assange asylum, Ecuador backed his argument that the criminal investigation he was fleeing — for accusations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden — was a smokescreen to extradite him to the United States.
But Assange appears to have gone too far by letting WikiLeaks wade into the US election with hacks that have embarrassed Clinton and effectively helped her Republican rival, Donald Trump.
Clinton’s team blames the Russian government for hacking Democratic Party emails and the Gmail account of campaign chairman John Podesta — a view shared by the US government.
With polls showing Clinton likely to beat the volatile billionaire on November 8, and recession-hit Ecuador needing to make nice with the superpower to the north, Assange may now be wearing out his welcome.
“Of course Correa’s government is uncomfortable,” said Mauricio Gandara, who is in a position to know, as Ecuador’s former ambassador in London.
“The government is scared because it understands Clinton is probably going to win and could make them pay,” he told AFP.
– Ecuador plays nice –
Correa has repeatedly voiced his support for Clinton in the election.
WikiLeaks on Monday accused Ecuador of severing Assange’s communications at the behest of Clinton’s successor as secretary of state, John Kerry.
“That’s just not true,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday.
Ecuador also implicitly denied the claim, saying it “does not yield to pressure from other states.”
But Ecuador is keener to pursue good neighborly relations with the United States than it was in 2012.
Then, the South American country was in the midst of a commodities-fueled economic boom. Now, it is stuck in a long recession.
The fact that Ecuador is currently negotiating loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank — two institutions where Washington wields outsize influence — may be an “additional factor” in the decision to cut Assange’s internet, said Santiago Basabe, an Ecuadoran political scientist.
Correa’s government “is trapped between the pressure Assange exerts with the relevant information in his possession, and pressure from the United States to stop embarrassing information from being published,” he said.
– Assange lifeline severed –
Losing his internet connection is a particularly low blow for Assange, whose computer had been his link to the outside world.
It is unclear how long Assange will remain in the Ecuadoran embassy.
He denies the accusations against him, but refuses to travel to Sweden over fears he would be handed over to the United States.
Prosecutors dropped their sexual assault case against him last year after the five-year statute of limitations expired.
But the limit on the rape allegation will not run out until at least 2020.
Sweden and Ecuador have agreed to a deal for him to be interrogated by Ecuadoran prosecutors, with questions posed by their Swedish counterparts.
The session was recently postponed until November 14.
Cooped up in a small apartment in the embassy — a redbrick Victorian building in a chic district of London — the 45-year-old Australian reportedly has a sparse existence.
He has a treadmill, a microwave and a sunlamp, and had until now spent the overwhelming majority of his time on the web.
“It’s not worse than a prison cell,” a friend and supporter, Vaughan Smith, told AFP after visiting Assange in August 2012.
“The primary reason that it’s not worse is that he can use a computer and the internet. He can work, and that is his prime concern.”