LONDON – Ecuador’s president said Thursday that conditions have been met for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to leave the country’s embassy in London, which would end a six-year standoff with British authorities.
“The way has been cleared for Mr Assange to take the decision to leave in near-liberty,” President Lenin Moreno told reporters, explaining that he still had to answer in Britain for violating the terms of his bail.
Moreno, however, said Britain had guaranteed that the 47-year-old Australian would not be extradited to any country where his life would be in danger.
Ecuador has been seeking a way to terminate Assange’s stay for several months, amid souring relations with its embassy guest, who recently sued Quito for restricting his internet access.
Assange, who gained international renown by publishing huge caches of hacked State Department and Pentagon files, has repeatedly expressed fear that Britain would extradite him to the United States to face charges there.
The 251,000 classified cables from US embassies around the world — released by WikiLeaks in 2010 and published by leading international newspapers — embarrassed the Bush administration in Washington and caused ructions in its bilateral relations with other countries.
US prosecutors last month inadvertently revealed the existence of a sealed indictment against Assange, according to WikiLeaks, but it was not known what the actual charges were.
The possible indictment suggested that Washington will seek Assange’s extradition if he leaves the embassy.
There is speculation that the US interest in Assange is connected to the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 election that brought President Donald Trump to office.
Britain’s the Guardian newspaper last month reported that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort held secret talks with Assange, whose organization is accused of leaking thousands of emails allegedly stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic campaign of Hillary Clinton.
In July, Mueller charged 12 Russian spies with conspiring to hack the Democratic National Committee computers, stealing and publishing data in an effort to sway the election.
– Years in embassy refuge –
Assange took refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning in two alleged cases of sexual assault.
Sweden has since dropped that case, and Ecuador says there are no pending extradition requests against the WikiLeaks founder.
“The British government sent us an official communication indicating that the constitution of Great Britain bars extradition of a person to a place where his life would be in danger,” Moreno said.
That could be an issue in the case of the United States because it has the death penalty.
His lawyer Carlos Poveda said last month that Assange was prepared to surrender to British police if he receives assurances he will not be extradited.
Ecuador’s foreign minister Jose Valencia said at the time that Britain was merely asking him to appear in court to answer for having broken his bail conditions, and that he was likely to get a sentence of no more than six months.
“We do not see the British changing their point of view, they continue to insist that he appear before the courts,” said Valencia.