By Alexandra Valencia
QUITO – Ecuador has suspended Julian Assange’s citizenship and accused him and members of his WikiLeaks group of collaborating in attempts to destabilize the Andean nation’s government, after years of offering him shelter.
A bearded and frail-looking Assange was arrested by British police on Thursday after Ecuador terminated his asylum at its London embassy, where he had lived since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault investigation.
Assange’s Ecuadorean citizenship was suspended on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Jose Valencia told reporters.
To some, Australian-born Assange is a hero for exposing what supporters cast as abuse of power and for championing free speech. To others, he is a dangerous figure who has undermined the security of the United States and has too many ties to Russia.
WikiLeaks angered Washington by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family.
Assange’s lawyer in Quito, Carlos Poveda, told reporters asylum was terminated in reprisal for corruption allegations against President Lenin Moreno and that his life will be in danger if he is extradited to the United States.
Assange was offered refuge in 2012 by Ecuador’s then-president Rafael Correa, but his relationship with Ecuador has soured under Moreno, who has said Assange violated the terms of his asylum. Assange received Ecuadorean citizenship in January 2018.
Moreno was angered after years-old private photographs of him and his family taken when they lived in Europe circulated on social media. His government said it believed the photos were shared by WikiLeaks.
Ecuador was not aware of any active extradition requests for Assange before it terminated his asylum, Valencia told the national assembly.
“At the time the decision to finalize his asylum was made, there was only a case in the United Kingdom for violating the conditions of his bail in 2012,” Valencia told lawmakers.
U.S. prosecutors unsealed an indictment against Assange on Thursday, accusing him of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history.
Assange faces up to five years in prison on the American charge, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.
Assange and WikiLeaks have intervened in Ecuadorean affairs and people close to him, including two Russian hackers, are living in Ecuador, Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo told reporters in Quito.
“The interferences in matters of other states also includes the interference of Mr. Assange and his allied organization in internal political matters in Ecuador,” Romo said.
The third person living in Ecuador is a high-level member of WikiLeaks and is connected to former Ecuadorean foreign minister Ricardo Patino, who was serving under Correa when Assange was granted asylum, Romo said.
“We have evidence that they have collaborated in attempts to destabilize the government and that they work closely with and have traveled with Ricardo Patino,” Romo said.
Patino traveled with the person to Peru, Spain and Venezuela, she said.
Patino denied the allegations.
Romo “just invented a story about a supposed relationship of mine with Russian hackers,” Patino said on Twitter. “The only thing left is for her to say where we left Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty.” Reuters