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How Ecuador soured on Assange

Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno announced April 11 that the country had made the decision to withdraw WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s asylum status. (Video: Presidency of Ecuador via Storyful)
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When Ecuador’s official Twitter account posted a video of President Lenín Moreno at 10:30 a.m. local time in London, rumors of Julian Assange’s imminent arrest had been making the rounds for hours.

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange was arrested on behalf of U.S. authorities, British police say, citing extradition warrant

“Ecuador has fulfilled its obligations under the framework of international law,” Moreno said, before accusing Assange — who sought asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London in 2012 — of breaking rules set by his host nation, after the WikiLeaks founder continued his work from embassy premises.

“The patience of Ecuador has reached its limits,” Moreno said.

The remarks departed sharply from the support that his predecessor, Rafael Correa, had offered Assange in 2012. At the time, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, said: “The government of Ecuador, faithful to its tradition of protecting those who seek refuge in its territory or in its diplomatic missions, has decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Julian Assange.”

“There are indications to presume that there could be political persecution,” Patiño said at the time, referring to concerns of Assange and his supporters that the United States might seek his extradition over the publication of government secrets, and that he could subsequently face the death penalty. A U.S. court filing error revealed in November that Assange has been charged under seal.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was arrested April 11 after Ecuador's government withdrew his asylum status. (Video: Reuters)

On Thursday, the Ecuadoran government indicated that Britain had offered assurances that Assange would not be extradited to a country where he might face the death penalty.

But Ecuador’s announcement on Thursday and the parallel arrest of Assange by British officers — apparently on behalf of U.S. authorities — were years in the making.

To understand why Ecuador first took in Assange and now has forced him out, it helps to go back further than 2012.

2010: Sweden seeks Assange’s arrest to face charges of sexual crimes

In 2010, the same year WikiLeaks publishes hundreds of thousands of leaked U.S. documents, Swedish officials issue an arrest warrant for Assange. Two women in Sweden had come forward to accuse him of rape and molestation. In December that year, British police arrest him on a European warrant and release him on bail soon after. Assange denies the accusations and claims that the charges are a ploy to get him extradited to the United States.

2011: Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa kicks out U.S. ambassador; Assange in legal limbo

Part of a group of anti-American leaders that also includes Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, then-President Rafael Correa orders the U.S. ambassador to leave Ecuador. The move drastically worsens relations between Ecuador and the United States, creating a political climate that later results in Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to Assange.

In Europe, the legal battle over Assange continues, with Swedish prosecutors demanding that he be extradited to face the allegations in Sweden, and Assange arguing against his removal from Britain. After much back and forth, in May 2012, Britain’s Supreme Court rules in favor of returning him to Sweden. His attorneys request a brief delay.

June 2012: Assange seeks asylum in Ecuadoran Embassy in London

Desperate to avoid extradition, Assange shows up at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London and asks for asylum.

“I can confirm I arrived at the Ecuadorean embassy and sought diplomatic sanctuary and political asylum,” Assange says in a statement.

August 2012: Assange denounces U.S. “witch hunt”

Assange emerges from the red-brick Ecuadoran Embassy in London and steps onto a small white balcony decorated with the Ecuadoran flag. Dressed in a blue shirt and red tie and clutching prepared remarks, the Australian whistleblower calls on the United States to “renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks.”

2015: Trade ties suffer; Assange investigation partially dropped

Total U.S. exports of goods to Ecuador fall from $8.25 billion in 2014 to $5.82 billion in 2015. Total U.S. imports from Ecuador fall from $10.87 billion in 2014 to $7.47 billion the following year.

In Europe, Swedish prosecutors drop part of their investigation of Assange but hold on to the rape investigation. British police had remained stationed outside the embassy at all times in case Assange left the property, but in October 2015 they back down, saying the response is “no longer proportionate."

April 2017: Mike Pompeo raises the stakes

Then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo characterizes WikiLeaks as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service” and a threat to U.S. national security.

May 2017: Swedish inquiry dropped; Moreno becomes Ecuadoran president

Sweden drops its inquiry into alleged sex crimes committed by Assange during a visit to Sweden.

Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny says that Sweden was “not making a statement about his guilt” but that it doesn’t seem possible to get Assange to Sweden “in the foreseeable future.” The WikiLeaks founder also still faces arrest for jumping bail in Britain five years earlier.

The same month, Correa’s former vice president, Lenín Moreno, takes power as president. Trying to position himself as a more moderate alternative to the hard-left Correa, Moreno attempts to rebuild economic and political ties to the United States.

For Moreno, reversing his predecessor’s decision on Assange increasingly appears to be a way to step out of Correa’s shadow.

December 2017: Signs of Ecuador trying to remove Assange from embassy

In what appears to be a possibly face-saving arrangement for Ecuador, the country makes Assange an Ecuadoran citizen, even though relations with him have soured at this point. The move appears to be part of a strategy to give Assange diplomatic immunity — but the efforts fail.

February 2018: Britain refuses to drop arrest warrant

British Judge Emma Arbuthnot dismisses claims from Assange’s attorneys that Britain should drop its arrest warrant for him, calling him “a man who wants to impose his terms on the course of justice.”

March 2018: Ecuador cuts Assange’s Internet access

Amid growing frustration in Ecuador that Assange’s continuous work with WikiLeaks and the organization’s publications may be detrimental to Ecuadoran interests in the European Union and North America, Moreno’s government cuts the WikiLeaks founder’s Internet access.

June 2018: Pence visits Ecuador

In a first sign of a revival in U.S.-Ecuadoran relations, Vice President Pence visits the Ecuadoran capital and says: “Our nations had experienced 10 difficult years where our people always felt close but our governments drifted apart. . . . But over the past year, Mr. President, thanks to your leadership and the actions that you’ve taken have brought us closer together once again.”

Late 2018: Tougher rules for Assange inside the embassy

The embassy issues new house rules for Assange, including that he take care of his cat’s “well-being, food and hygiene” — or risk losing the right to have the cat. He is also told that he has to ask permission in advance for outside visitors to come in and should be responsible for his own food and laundry.

Early 2019: WikiLeaks dispute with President Moreno escalates

Fearing a possible expulsion, Assange’s lawyers try to prevent such a move. The organization blames politics for any possible revocation of Assange’s asylum and claims that Ecuador spied on Assange and his lawyers.

“If President Moreno wants to illegally terminate a refu­gee publisher’s asylum to cover up an offshore corruption scandal, history will not be kind."

One week before Assange is arrested, Moreno tells Ecuadoran radio that Assange “has violated the agreement we reached with him and his legal counsel too many times.” But Ecuador’s foreign minister, José Valencia, tweets that WikiLeaks’s claims of an imminent arrest are no more than “unfounded rumors.”

April 11, 2019: Ecuador allows British authorities to arrest Assange

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