Ecuador’s foreign minister says his country will indefinitely host the WikiLeaks co-founder, Julian Assange, at its embassy in London if that is what it takes to spare him from an eventual extradition to the United States.
In a wide-ranging interview with PassBlue during the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in late September in New York, Ricardo Patiño said that Ecuador would not bend on “principle” despite the deadlock that has put Assange, an Australian software programmer and activist, into his third year living at the embassy, unable to leave the building without facing swift arrest by the British government.
“Principles cannot be negotiated and have no time limits,” Patiño said through an interpreter at the Ecuadorean mission to the UN. “We’ll give him asylum as long as he needs it. The time that is necessary to protect him.”
The US has not publicly sought Assange’s extradition after WikiLeaks began publishing thousands of American classified and other documents in 2010, but he is wanted for questioning in Sweden about allegations of rape and sexual molestation.
While British authorities have pledged to deliver Assange, 43, to Sweden should he step out of the Ecuadorean embassy, Patiño reaffirmed that the basis for Ecuador’s offer of asylum is to prevent a suspected subsequent transfer to the US. Such resolve may also signal Ecuador’s use of Assange as a political bargaining chip with the US.
“Regardless of all the [allegations] against him [in Sweden], there is still the risk that he will be extradited to the United States,” Patiño said. “And that is the fundamental reason for why Ecuador gave him asylum.”
Patiño described Assange as a prodigious worker who toils by night and rests “a little” during the day. “That’s good because that leaves our staff free to get on with their work,” he said.
He added, however, that living in such confined quarters for such a long period was taking its toll. Assange has a room for his rest and a space to work and a “work team” plus the diplomatic staff in the embassy to call on. But Patiño declined to say what Assange was working on — reiterating that such information was private, a surprising position given that Assange has staked his worldwide reputation on revealing secrets. The costs of housing Assange, he said, were minimal — amounting to three meals a day and health care expenses.
“He’s a very active man, he’s very enthusiastic,” Patiño said. “I admire him after two years being locked up in a relatively small place to still have purpose, energy and enthusiasm. I would have possibly been depressed by then.”
However, he added, “He has difficult moments because he’s not with his family, he’s not carrying out his regular activities with his friends.
“His friends come to see him, of course, but . . . it’s different from what it would be if he were home, going outdoors, taking vacations, working in an office and having the freedom that he should be enjoying.”
Assange made a virtual exit from the embassy recently, when he appeared in hologram form on stage at an annual conference of the Nantucket Project, a relatively new forum that bills itself as bringing leading “visionaries” to the Massachusetts island for a thematic ideas exchange.
But it was as host of a press conference in August in London — with Patiño at his side — that Assange said he would be “leaving the embassy soon.” Since he also dismissed reports he would give himself up, the statement sparked speculation of a breakthrough in the impasse over his legal status.
Patiño told PassBlue that Assange’s “exaggerated” optimism had been on display, adding that any resolution of the impasse depended on whether Britain was prepared to guarantee his “safe conduct” from the embassy to an Ecuador-bound flight. “Up to now, we don’t see the prospect that it will happen,” he said.
Still, Patiño said he believed that recent changes to British extradition laws were tantamount to a British government admission it had mishandled Assange’s case. Under the changes, prosecutors should have made a charging decision before completing their extradition paperwork. Swedish prosecutors, by contrast, have not formally charged Assange, saying Sweden’s law calls for him to be deposed first.
Patiño signaled that he was buoyed by the reforms’ passage — even though Britain said it would not be applied retroactively to Assange’s case.
“It’s an indication that the British government have accepted that they are making a big mistake,” Patiño said. “Its parliament discussed the issue of Assange when they were debating on this reform.”
Patiño deplored the Swedish prosecution’s refusal to travel to London to depose Assange or to interview him via videoconference. “This is a very serious fault of the legal system of Sweden,” he said.
The accusations against Assange relate to complaints brought by two women he met while in Sweden in 2010.
Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Marianne Ny, said in written testimony before a British High Court that Assange must be returned to Sweden to be deposed because he was sought “for the purpose of conducting criminal proceedings” — in other words, arrest — and not “merely” to assist with the investigation.
Successive media and political watchdog groups have questioned the motives behind Ecuador’s backing of Assange when, they say, the country has a poor record on protecting domestic media freedoms. The US-based monitoring group Freedom House, for example, says in its 2014 press freedom report that the country’s new communications law had made a bad situation worse, charging it “created powerful regulatory bodies with questionable independence, placed excessive controls on content, and imposed onerous obligations on journalists and media outlets.”
Patiño argued the law had, rather, “democratized” media ownership by taking it out of the hands of economically powerful groups, such as bankers.
“They’ve been used to putting presidents in power, and to getting presidents out of power; to set the agenda of the society, and to terrorize and blackmail the government,” Patiño said. “And since we’re not allowing them to do that, they’re saying we’re against freedom of expression.”
In contrast to the criticism over its press freedom record, Ecuador has steadily trended upward over several decades in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development measure, which combines indicators for life expectancy, education and income.
Progress has been made toward gender parity in some of the country’s political and administrative bodies. In the Parliament, 42 percent of the seats were won by women in 2013 elections, with the National Assembly dominated by the party of the president, Rafael Correa. Legal and constitutional reforms helped ease the way for more women to be elected to Parliament, Patiño said.
“With more participation of women, fundamentally, we have a more complete vision of society now,” he said. He pointed to the presence of more female judges in family courts, where domestic violence cases are heard and the venues have been a bastion of sexism, which “made it so that it was almost impossible to condemn men that had abused women or their children,” Patiño said.
The country records high numbers of domestic abuse, and a new law passed in the penal code recently addresses femicide — killing a woman because of her gender — more closely. Until now, killing a female fell under “common murder,” without specifying the nature of the crime. The new law puts femicide into a separate category and is punishable to a maximum of 26 years.
Ecuador is also considering the development of a poverty index promoted by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, which takes a holistic approach rather than relying on the single measure of income, as the World Bank does.
Ecuador’s “good life” — or “buen vivir” — index would assess not only income but also health, education and employment conditions, based on indigenous people’s practces of how to lead a meaningful life. The index is part of a social philosophy movement growing in parts of South America.
Still, poverty is a mainstay among much of the indigenous population, and inequality remains high throughout society, despite cash-transfer programs.
Internationally, Ecuador continues to expand its diplomatic and economic links to a wide array of countries beyond the developed world. New embassies are planned for several African countries, while Ecuador is to be the host for the next South America–Africa Summit in 2016.
“Forty years from now, the majority of the middle class is going to be in Asia, Africa and Latin America,” Patiño said. “We have to ask, Why were we so blind during so much time to not develop our relationships with Asia and Africa?”
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Steven Edwards is a freelance writer who formerly covered the United Nations for 13 years as New York bureau chief of Canada’s National Post and Postmedia Inc. newspapers. He received award nominations for his reporting on the Haiti earthquake, the presidential assassination that incited the Rwanda genocide and the prosecution of a Canadian “child soldier” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He detailed his breaking of the Gennifer Flowers “scandal” in a cover story in Canada’s Saturday Night. Born in Britain, where he grew up in Birmingham, he graduated with a B.A. degree from Laval University in Quebec. He speaks English, French and Spanish.