QUITO: Ecuador said Thursday it had granted citizenship to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in an unsuccessful attempt to provide him with diplomatic immunity and usher him out of its London embassy without the threat of arrest by Britain.
Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa said the 46-year-old Australian, who has been holed up at the embassy for five years to avoid arrest, became an Ecuadoran citizen on December 12.
She told a press conference in Quito that Ecuador had asked London to recognize Assange as a diplomat – which would give him safe passage out of the embassy without fear of arrest – but Britain had refused.
“The Ecuadoran government is empowered to grant nationality to the protected person and thus facilitate... his inclusion in the host state,” Espinosa told reporters.
She said the request to Britain to accept diplomatic status for Assange was made on December 20, and denied a day later.
The foreign minister said Quito would not press the issue because of the “good relations we have with the United Kingdom.”
The British foreign ministry said in a statement that Ecuador had “recently requested diplomatic status for Mr Assange here in the UK. The UK did not grant that request, nor are we in talks with Ecuador on this matter.”
“Ecuador knows that the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice,” the British government added.
Ecuador’s attempt to obtain diplomatic status for Assange comes as part of the country’s broader efforts to resolve the case of their long-term lodger, who moved into the embassy in 2012 to avoid arrest over a Swedish probe into rape allegations.
Sweden dropped their investigation over the 2010 allegations last year, but British police have said they are still seeking to arrest him for failing to surrender to a court after violating bail terms.
Former Ecuadoran foreign minister Jose Ayala Lasso told AFP that Britain had obviously “immediately rejected” the move because “it considered it an artificial way to circumvent the provisions of international law.”
He accused the government in Quito of “a total lack of seriousness” in its handling of Assange.
He said the decision to grant him asylum in 2012 had “generated problems” in Ecuador and had only discredited the country abroad, particularly in the United States.
Assange has refused to step outside the embassy and claimed he fears being extradited to the United States over WikiLeaks’ publication of secret US military documents and diplomatic cables in 2010.
The WikiLeaks founder has strained the patience of his hosts since taking up the offer of asylum made by then-president Rafael Correa in 2012.
He was publicly reprimanded for interfering in the 2016 US election after publishing hacked emails from the campaign team of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
More recently, he drew the ire of Correa’s successor, President Lenin Moreno, when he used Twitter to pump out messages of support for Catalonia’s independence drive.
Moreno was forced to respond to complaints from the Spanish government.
“We have reminded Mr Assange that he has no reason to interfere in Ecuadoran politics because his status does not allow it. Nor in that of nations that are our friends. He does not have the right to do so and he has committed himself to this,” Moreno said in an interview with a Spanish newspaper.
Espinosa told the press conference that Quito would continue “to explore other ways of solving” Assange’s situation.
Among these are “a possible mediation and good offices of renowned authorities, other states or international organizations that can facilitate a just, definitive and dignified solution for all parties.”
She had said on Tuesday her government was looking at the possibility of a “third country or a personality” stepping in to resolve the stand-off.
“No solution will be achieved without international cooperation and the cooperation of the United Kingdom, which has also shown interest in seeking a way out,” she said. --AFP