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'Rude, ungrateful and meddling': why Ecuador turned on Assange

Ecuador's decision to allow police to arrest Julian Assange inside its embassy on Thursday followed a fraught and acrimonious period in which relations between the government in Quito and the WikiLeaks founder became increasingly hostile.

In a presentation before Ecuador's parliament on Thursday, the foreign minister, José Valencia, set out nine reasons why Assange's asylum had been withdrawn. The list ranged from meddling in Ecuador's relations with other countries to having to "put up with his rudeness" for nearly seven years.

Valencia said Ecuador had been left with little choice but to end Assange's stay in its London embassy following his "innumerable acts of interference in the politics of other states" which put at risk the country's relations with them.

His second point focused on Assange's behaviour, which stretched from riding a skateboard and playing football inside the small embassy building to mistreating and threatening embassy staff and even coming to blows with security workers. Valencia said the whistleblower and his lawyers had made "insulting threats" against the country, accusing its officials of being pressured by other countries.

He said Assange "permanently accused [embassy] staff of spying on and filming him" on behalf of the United States and instead of thanking Ecuador for nearly seven years of asylum he and his entourage launched "an avalanche of criticisms" against the Quito government. He referred also to the guest's "hygienic" problems including one that was "very unpleasant" and "attributed to a digestive problem".

But Assange's deteriorating health was also major concern, the minister said, as he could not be properly treated in the embassy building. He added the fact the UK would not consider granting him safe conduct meant Ecuador faced the prospect of him staying "indefinitely in the diplomatic headquarters".

The minister went on to say Ecuador could not extend asylum to a person fleeing justice and there was no extradition request for Assange when Ecuador ended his asylum. The UK had offered sufficient guarantees of due process to Assange, Valencia added, and that he would not be extradited to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty.

Finally, there were "multiple inconsistencies" in how Assange had been granted Ecuadorean citizenship and his stay had proved very costly, the minister said. Ecuador had spent more $5.8m on its guest's security between 2012 and 2018 and nearly $400,000 on his medical costs, food and laundry, he added.

Ecuador's president, Lenín Moreno, had made little secret of his desire to evict Assange from the embassy building in Knightsbridge, west London, where he had lived since June 2012. Moreno has variously described Assange as a "hacker", an "inherited problem" and a "stone in the shoe".

In a video address on Thursday, he accused Assange of breaching the "generous" asylum conditions offered by Ecuador and of meddling in the internal affairs of other states. Moreno claimed Assange had installed forbidden electronic equipment in the embassy, had mistreated guards and "accessed the security files of our embassy without permission".

The final straw came "two days ago", Moreno suggested, when WikiLeaks directly "threatened the government of Ecuador". On Tuesday Assange's legal team gave a press conference in which they accused Quito of illegally spying on him.

In retrospect, Assange's fate was sealed in 2017 when Moreno narrowly won Ecuador's presidential election. Moreno's leftist predecessor, Rafael Correa, had given Assange unconditional support and had offered him asylum.

Moreno was the candidate for Correa's Alianza Pais party, but soon distanced himself from his predecessor - apparently viewing Assange as a hangover from the Correa years and an impediment to better relations with the United States.

In a tweet on Thursday, Correa, now Moreno's bitter enemy, described him as "the greatest traitor in Ecuador and Latin America's history".

In particular, Moreno took a dim view of WikiLeaks' release of material that caused bilateral embarrassment. In 2016 WikiLeaks published emails hacked by Russia's military intelligence spy agency, according to a 2018 indictment by the special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The emails were stolen from the Democratic party during Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Then in 2017 Assange tweeted in favour of Catalan independence - an action that annoyed the Spanish government, and caused difficulties for relations between Madrid and Quito.

In March 2018 Moreno restricted Assange's access to the internet and insisted he abide by new conditions. Assange complained he had been cut off from visitors and the world.

Then, near the end of last year, Ecuador laid out a stringent new set of house rules for Assange, warning the whistleblower to avoid online comments about political issues - and ordering him to clean his bathroom and take better care of his cat.

By spring of this year it appeared Moreno's patience had finally run out and that his unhappiness with Assange had become personal. In a radio interview earlier this month Moreno complained that "photos of my bedroom, what I eat and how my wife and daughters and friends dance" had been circulating on social media. The Ecuadorean government said it believed WikiLeaks had shared the photos.

WikiLeaks tweeted last week that Moreno had said he would take a decision about Assange's fate "in the short term" after it had reported on an "offshore corruption scandal wracking his government". Known in Ecuador as the Ina Papers, the scandal alleges Moreno corruptly benefited from an offshore account in Panama. Moreno denies any wrongdoing.

[Source: By Dan Collyns, The Guardian, London, 11Apr19]

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