Ecuador's move to give WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum has roused the wrath of the UK. But Ecuador has seen its own share of free speech problems, and the asylum offer could be geared at irking the US.
Since publishing thousands of secret US documents in 2010, it's been one dramatic development after another for Australian Internet activist Julian Assange. The latest twist might make Ecuador his new home, with the country's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino announcing Thursday (16.08.12) it will give him asylum.
"Asylum is a fundamental human right," Patino said.
The announcement elicited a round of applause from pro-government journalists selected to attend Patino's press conference. But the move also drew criticism from Ecuador's opposition.
Former Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Antonio Parra Gil said asylum would be justified in political or religious cases, but that Assange was merely accused of ordinary crimes.
Swedish public prosecutors want to question Assange about accusations of sexual assault and rape. Since Sweden asked the UK to extradite Assange a year and a half ago, he has been under house arrest.
The WikiLeaks founder has voiced fear of extradition to Sweden on grounds it could in turn lead him to be sent to the United States. Assange has said his release of secret US documents could expose him to the death penalty there.
Having exhausted all legal means of fighting extradition to Sweden, Assange fled to the Ecuadoran embassy in London eight weeks ago.
Even though Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, it is unclear how he could reach South America without the UK's consent. UK officials have stated they are still committed to delivering Assange to Sweden, with the British Foreign Office on Wednesday indirectly threatening to extricate Assange from the Ecuadoran embassy by force.
British consular law includes a provision allowing a building's diplomatic status to be temporarily rescinded. The suggestion horrified most experts in London, who feared the step could trigger reprisals against British and other western embassies around the world.
The diplomatic crisis between Ecuador and the UK could hardly be more precarious. The UK hoped to the last that Ecuador would back off from giving Assange asylum. Since going through with the asylum offer, Patino has called the UK's threat of invading the Ecuadoran embassy "hostile and intolerable."
Patino has also said Assange would not receive a fair process in the US. In essence, Ecuador is continuing a policy of confronting the superpower. Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa previously boycotted the Summit of the Americas in Colombia on grounds the US and Canada refused to put the Cuban embargo and the Falkland Islands' status on the agenda.
Championing Assange's cause also represents an opportunity for Correa to improve on his image as enemy of the press. The leader has had fierce legal clashes with independent journalists in Ecuador for years.
Ecuadoran daily "El Universo" earned the president's wrath when columnist Emilio Palacio questioned Correa's account of the country's 2010 coup, calling the head of state a liar. Correa subsequently sued "El Universo" and its heads for insulting the president. Palacio was sentenced to three years in prison and the newspaper had to pay $40 million (32 million euros).
Since then, Correa has dispensed a sort of public pardon to the newspaper, while Palacio has fled to Miami.
It is questionable whether Assange could thrive for long in a country where journalists are under that kind of pressure. Nevertheless, the WikiLeaks founder has already expressed his gratitude for the asylum offer, tweeting "Gracias Ecuador."