Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, has said Julian Assange should respond to the sexual assault allegations made against him by two Swedish women, even though the case would not in his view constitute criminal behaviour in Latin America.
His remarks are likely to add to the controversy surrounding the WikiLeaks founder but they also hint at a possible avenue for a compromise in the diplomatic row caused by Ecuador’s recent decision to grant asylum to Assange at its London embassy.
In the latest in a series of strident comments, Correa accused the British government of hypocrisy and said he was prepared for the standoff to last indefinitely even if it risked a loss of UK business and public support.
“If the UK distances itself from Ecuador as a result of this decision to grant asylum that would make us very sorry because we appreciate the United Kingdom – especially its people – but that will not make us go back on our position.
“Despite the attitude of the United Kingdom, we as a country are obliged to act responsibly,” he told a gathering of international press in Guayaquil. “As we have previously said, now that he has asylum, Mr Assange is entitled to remain in the embassy for as long as he wants.”
He spelled out three possibilities for the standoff to be broken: for the UK to promise safe conduct to the airport without the threat of arrest; for Assange to leave asylum of his own accord; or for the government in Ecuador to change its mind, which he said would not happen.
The British government has insisted on an investigation into the rape and sexual assault accusations. It wants to comply with a court request that Assange should be sent to Sweden for questioning. Assange’s supporters have tried to discredit the allegations, saying they are part of a plot to extradite him to the US.
Senior politicians in Ecuador have implied much the same. Correas added his voice but said the case needed to be answered. “I don’t want to judge allegations that have not been proven and would not, in any case, be considered a felony in Latin American, too,” he said. “It has never been the intention of the Ecuadorean government or Julian Assange not to respond to those allegations.”
Ecuador has proposed interrogations by Swedish investigators on embassy property and has said it would support Assange going to Sweden if it could get reassurances from the UK government that he would not then be extradited to the US.
Critics say this is grandstanding for domestic political reasons. Correa – already Ecuador’s longest serving president for a century – will contest an election early next year. Although his support rates are high, one of his least popular moves has been to assert greater control over the media through lawsuits, referenda and closures of radio stations. Providing a haven for Assage – a champion of whistleblowers – may be designed to offset these negative perceptions.
During the Q&A on Tuesday Correa addressed this issue and defending an offensive against TV, radio and print. “Don’t let yourself be fooled by what’s going. There is this image of the media as being about Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate and the struggle for freedom of expression. But that isn’t the case here.”
The reality, he said, was more like the the novel Pantanleón y las Visitadoras by Mario Vargas Llosa. “Instead of grabbing the news they are blackmailing people. The press in Latin America is totally corrupt,” he said.