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Ecuador cuts off Internet access for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Midway through releasing a series of damaging disclosures about U.S. presidential contender Hillary Clinton, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says his hosts at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London abruptly cut him off from the Internet. (Alastair Grant/AP)

The government of Ecuador has directed its embassy in London to cut off the Internet access of long-term guest Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, saying the organization’s recent document releases have had a “major impact” on the U.S. presidential election.

A statement by Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said that Assange’s access to communications would be “temporarily restricted” at the country’s embassy in Britain, where the WikiLeaks founder has been living since 2012.

WikiLeaks in recent weeks has published intercepted emails between staffers of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that her opponents have used to depict her as beholden to Wall Street banks.

“The government of Ecuador respects the principles of nonintervention in the affairs of other nations, does not meddle in electoral campaigns nor support any candidate in particular,” the statement said.

Ecuador said it had made a “sovereign decision” to unplug Assange, insisting that its government “does not respond to pressure from other states.” The latter statement was apparently in response to claims by WikiLeaks that the United States has leaned on Ecuador to rein in Assange.

WikiLeaks releases thousands of documents about Hillary Clinton

The organization has alleged that Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised the issue with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, but a State Department spokesman said such claims were baseless.

“While our concerns about WikiLeaks are longstanding, any suggestion that Secretary Kerry or the State Department were involved in shutting down WikiLeaks is false,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

“Reports that Secretary Kerry had conversations with Ecuadoran officials about this are simply untrue,” the statement read.

Relations between the United States and Ecuador have been strained in recent years, as the leftist Correa became an outspoken U.S. critic and accused the Obama administration of trying to undermine his government.

But reports have also periodically surfaced about tensions between Ecuadoran officials and their embassy guest, who has spent much of the past four years confined to a small apartment on the grounds of the diplomatic compound, where he is beyond the reach of British law.

U.S. investigates Russian moves to disrupt elections

WikiLeaks first reported on Monday that Assange’s Internet access had been severed since Saturday, after the organization published a copy of Clinton’s speeches to executives at Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank.

But the statement from Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry was the first official confirmation that the Ecuadoran government had decided to cut him off.

The Foreign Ministry statement defended Ecuador’s decision to shelter Assange from criminal charges in Sweden, where he has been accused of rape, saying he faces “legitimate fears of political persecution.”

The statement also said the release of hacked emails and other documents has been the “exclusive responsibility” of WikiLeaks. The decision to suspend Assange’s Web access would not “impede” the organization’s “journalistic activities,” it said.

U.S. officially accuses Russia of election-related hacking

This month, the Obama administration officially accused Russia of attempting to interfere in the 2016 elections, including by hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations. The digitally purloined material has appeared on websites such as DC Leaks and WikiLeaks. It has included the private emails of former secretary of state Colin Powell and aides to former secretary of state Clinton.

Hours after the Obama administration called out Russia, WikiLeaks released about 2,000 emails apparently hacked from the personal Gmail inbox of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. They included excerpts of speeches Clinton made to Wall Street banks that she had resisted making public. In one of them, she said that Wall Street knew best how it should be regulated. The campaign has not acknowledged the excerpts’ authenticity. There was no immediate word from the FBI as to whether the Russians were behind the alleged hack.

Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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