World News

Ecuador Gives Assange Citizenship, Worsening Standoff With Britain

Posted January 11, 2018 1:18 p.m. EST
Updated January 11, 2018 1:24 p.m. EST

LONDON — Ecuador announced Thursday that it had granted citizenship to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks co-founder who has been living in a tiny room in the South American country’s London embassy since 2012 after seeking political asylum.

The move was an extraordinary intervention in a prolonged diplomatic standoff. Hours before Ecuador’s announcement, Britain said it had rejected a request by Ecuador to grant Assange diplomatic immunity so that he could leave the embassy.

“Ecuador knows that the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement, adding that Britain was not in talks with Ecuador about the matter.

Assange had hinted Wednesday that something was afoot when he tweeted a picture of himself wearing an Ecuadorean soccer jersey, and Reuters reported that his name had been recorded in a civil registry of Ecuadorean citizens.

Ecuador’s foreign minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, said at a news conference Thursday that Assange had applied for citizenship Sept. 16 and been granted it Dec. 12. “What naturalization does is provide the asylum-seeker another layer of protection,” she said.

She acknowledged that Britain had rebuffed Ecuador’s request that Assange be given diplomatic status.

Assange initially sought refuge in the embassy after Sweden sought to have him arrested in connection with allegations of rape and assault. Although Sweden is no longer seeking his extradition, Assange has refused to leave, saying that he fears Britain would extradite him to the United States to face charges relating to his involvement in multiple releases of documents that U.S. officials say have damaged national security.

He has managed to wear out his welcome over the years, alienating many of his previous supporters, including Edward Snowden, the former American intelligence contractor who leaked documents about surveillance programs.

Assange also offended potential supporters in the Democratic Party by allowing WikiLeaks to become the conduit for emails hacked by Russia from the Democratic National Committee that were intended to harm the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian hackers working for the Kremlin carried out the intrusions, but Assange has always insisted that he did not know the source of the emails, under the working rules of WikiLeaks. He has denied working for Russia or any other government.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that arresting Assange is a priority. “We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks, and some of them are quite serious,” he said last year.

When Swedish prosecutors dropped their effort to have Assange extradited last year, they said it was not for reasons of guilt or innocence but because they saw no hope of compelling him to leave the embassy.

However, British police say that he is still subject to arrest on charges of jumping bail, and Assange faces the strong possibility that the United States has issued a secret arrest and extradition warrant in connection with his assistance to Chelsea Manning, the Army private who was convicted of revealing state secrets.

The decision to grant citizenship comes amid flurry of activity suggesting that the Ecuadorean government had ramped up efforts to find a solution for Assange. The country said Tuesday that it was looking for a third-party mediator who could broker a deal to allow Assange to leave the embassy.

“We’re considering, exploring the possibility of a mediation,” Espinosa said, according to Reuters. “No solution can be reached without international cooperation and without cooperation from the United Kingdom, which in addition has shown interest in finding a solution.”

Greg Barns, a lawyer who advises Assange and WikiLeaks, said in a telephone interview from New Zealand that the situation was “intolerable” for his client and for Ecuador.

The embassy is in the affluent Knightsbridge section of London, but he said Assange had been effectively “imprisoned with no access to natural light and fresh air for a period of 5 1/2 years.”

Barns suggested that the Australian government would be an obvious third-party mediator, given that Assange is a citizen of Australia, which has excellent relations with Britain.

Barns also said that he had previously asked Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia, a former colleague, to intervene, but that he had not received a response.