LONDON – Ecuador’s diplomatic protection of Julian Assange once allowed the small Andean nation’s leftist government to antagonize its United States foe and argue that it was defending free speech, while cracking down on the press at home.
But after seven years and a new government, that relationship frayed, as President Lenin Moreno sought to improve Ecuador’s relations with the US.
After calling the WikiLeaks founder an “inherited problem,” Moreno on Thursday revoked Assange’s asylum, allowing his arrest.
Officials described him as an intolerable tenant at its London embassy, accusing him of blocking security cameras, mistreating guards and once spreading feces on the walls.
“The patience of Ecuador has reached its limit,” Moreno said.
Ecuadorian authorities raised the pressure on Friday, disclosing that they had arrested a Swedish WikiLeaks associate a day earlier as part of its investigation into whether Assange tried to destabilize the government.
The man, a software developer named Ola Bini, had visited Assange at Ecuador’s embassy in London 12 times, said Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo, adding that prosecutors were still probing if he committed a crime.
Efforts to contact Bini weren’t successful and it couldn’t be determined if he had a lawyer. Romo said earlier this week that Russian hackers had set up shop in Ecuador.
“We aren’t going to allow Ecuador to be turned into a center for hacking,” she said. “And we can’t allow illegal activities developed in the country to harm citizens from Ecuador or other countries or any government.”
Public cracks in Ecuador’s patience with Assange emerged toward the end of the administration of Rafael Correa, the leftist leader who granted the asylum in 2012 and who criticized Moreno’s decision, calling him a traitor.
In October 2016, Correa temporarily restricted Assange’s internet access after WikiLeaks began publishing messages apparently sent and received by Hillary Clinton’s top aide John Podesta related to the 2016 US election.
When he took over the presidency in 2017, Moreno, a former vice president under Correa, was expected to continue his predecessor’s policies, including asylum for Assange.
However, he quickly took a different path, setting off a bitter feud between the two men and raising doubts about how long Assange would be allowed to remain at the embassy.
Central to Moreno’s shift was an interest in deepening ties with the US Moreno, a 66-year-old who uses a wheelchair since being shot during a robbery two decades ago, ended Ecuador’s alliance with Venezuela and a leftist bloc of nations, choosing instead to pursue a trade deal with Washington.
He has sought to renegotiate Chinese oil-backed loans and signed a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund to shore up a troubled economy.
The new president described Assange as a “stone in our shoe” who was hurting Ecuador’s relations with other countries.
“This was something that many people thought was coming and at a time when Ecuador is really trying to get closer to the US it makes sense,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank.
Moreno denied that Ecuador coordinated Assange’s eviction with the US, saying it was his country’s sovereign right to rescind his asylum.
A US State Department spokeswoman for Western Hemisphere affairs said, “Ecuador, as a sovereign nation, makes its own decision on whom to grant diplomatic asylum.”
Ecuador began looking for ways to get Assange to leave. It granted him Ecuadorean citizenship in late 2017, hoping the United Kingdom would provide him with diplomatic status and immunity from arrest if he left the embassy. The UK government denied the request.
In early 2018, the government again restricted Assange’s communications, accusing him of breaking a written agreement not to meddle in the affairs of other countries.
The decision came after Assange took to Twitter to criticize the detention of a former Catalan leader and the UK for expelling Russian diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy.
A few months later, Vice President Mike Pence visited Moreno in Quito to discuss trade and a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Ecuadorean officials continued to hold regular meetings with their US counterparts in recent days.
“I think it is very unlikely they didn’t talk to the US first” about ending Assange’s asylum, said Sebastian Hurtado, president of Profitas, a Quito political-risk consulting firm.
In October, the government laid out a list of rules that Assange would have to follow if he wanted to remain at the embassy, where he lived in a small corner room and received guests including the actress Pamela Anderson, who lashed out at governments in the US, UK and Ecuador.
“You are devils and liars and thieves,” she wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
Ecuador’s government required Assange to clean the bathroom and take better care of his pet cat. More substantially, it barred Assange from engaging in political meddling.
But Moreno said he repeatedly broke that rule, pointing to WikiLeaks’ leaking of Vatican documents this year. He said Assange also installed “electronic and distortion equipment” that are prohibited in the building and accessed embassy security files without permission.
WikiLeaks alleged that Ecuador had conducted an espionage campaign against Assange and secretly cooperated with the US.
Ecuadorean business leaders hope removing Assange from the embassy will speed up talks for a trade agreement with Washington.
Analysts say that Moreno’s decision will likely be welcomed by many Ecuadoreans who saw Assange as a nuisance.
“Most people are OK with just having this guy leave the embassy, finally,” said Hurtado, the analyst. “What I always wondered was why they took so long.”