- - Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BUENOS AIRES — The legal saga of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could be taking a major new turn after Ecuador abruptly announced this week that Mr. Assange’s asylum in the country’s London embassy — now entering its sixth year — is “unsustainable” given the Australian’s continued meddling in political affairs.

In an unexpected move that could impact the Russian election-meddling probe in the U.S., Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno has broken with the policies of predecessor and mentor Rafael Correa and signaled that Mr. Assange’s days of refuge in the London embassy are numbered.

Facing legal woes originally linked to sexual assault charges in Sweden that he claims are politically motivated, Mr. Assange may have slowly but surely overstayed his welcome, Mr. Moreno’s foreign minister said this week, suggesting that international “mediation” may help get the Australian asylee out of the mission in the posh Knightsbridge neighborhood.

“We have an enormous interest in achieving a definitive solution for the Assange case,” said Maria Fernanda Espinosa on Wednesday in Quito — Ecuador’s capital. “To make that happen, we are in permanent dialogue with the government of the United Kingdom, and we are exploring various options to find a way out of this situation.”

While Mr. Assange has found sanctuary in embassy, WikiLeaks, the organization he founded, has found itself at the center of the probe into whether the Kremlin tried to swing the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump. The group made public thousands of sensitive internal emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign in the summer of 2016. Mr. Assange has denied he worked with Russian intelligence on the release of the hacked correspondence.

Negotiations led by a “third country” or a respected statesman, Ms. Espinosa said, could help solve the stalemate in London, insisting that “the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice.”

Mr. Assange originally sought refuge in the embassy building in 2012 to evade a European arrest warrant issued for the Swedish prosecution. Though that investigation has since been dropped, he continues to face a separate British warrant for skipping bail.

The 46-year-old activist and his supporters contend that all attempts to take him into custody are ultimately aimed at extraditing Mr. Assange to the United States to face charges over the massive 2010 leaks of classified U.S. diplomatic cables — a claim bolstered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent comments that getting access to Mr. Assange is considered a “priority” for U.S. investigators.

Ecuador, meanwhile, had long maintained it agreed to protect Mr. Assange from what is considers politically motivated prosecution. But while its foreign minister voiced concern for Mr. Assange’s “physical and psychological integrity,” analysts noted that her overture marks a clear departure from the longstanding fierce defense of the hacker — especially coming from Ms. Espinosa, a political holdover from the leftist Correa administration.

“She was one of the promoters of this anti-American [and] anti-OAS rhetoric,” said Santiago Basabe of the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in Quito. “In this context, Assange served as the calling card of what Correa wanted to do on the international scene.”

Correa and Assange

In fact, the former president — an unquestioning ally and personal friend of the Venezuela’s late anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez — closely linked his own political fate to that of Mr. Assange, whom he had granted asylum within weeks of his showing up at the London embassy.

“If you agreed with Correa’s government and Correa, you had to agree with [his handling of] the Assange case. And if you opposed Correa, you were against Assange,” Mr. Basabe said. “So the country’s internal polarization fundamentally served Assange, while Correa used it in an intelligent way, in political and electoral terms, by portraying Assange as persecuted, as a victim of the [American] empire.”

The link was so tight that some 6,000 miles from Ecuadoran territory, Mr. Assange quite openly backed Mr. Moreno — then Mr. Correa’s handpicked successor — in last year’s presidential election. Opposition challenger Guillermo Lasso, by contrast, promised voters he would expel the WikiLeaks leader within 30 days of taking office.

“I cordially invite Mr. Lasso to leave Ecuador within 30 days,” Mr. Assange predictably retorted on Twitter after the candidate’s narrow defeat, earning a first rebuke from Mr. Moreno, who made it clear he preferred for the outspoken non-citizen to stay out of domestic politics.

Nevertheless, the WikiLeaks founder’s running commentary continued to irk the new Ecuadoran president, especially as Mr. Moreno increasingly distanced himself from Mr. Correa, whose leftist economic vision he sought to replace with closer ties to the country’s European and American trading partners.

Mr. Assange has not exactly been a model guest, finding it hard to stay quiet.

In the wake of Catalonia’s polarizing bid to secede from Spain late last year, Mr. Assange mused on social media that the breakaway region’s “fit men” represented “a force which if rallied vastly eclipses the available capacities of Spain’s police [and] army.” Mr. Moreno assured Madrid that he had made the hacker promise — in writing — to keep his future thoughts to himself.

“We have reminded him that his condition of asylum does not allow him to intervene in Ecuadoran or international politics,” the president told the Spanish newspaper ABC. “We have asked him not to talk about the topic of Catalonia. If he does, we will know to respond.”

Seeking to improve on the sometimes testy relations Mr. Correa had with the U.S., Mr. Moreno likely also wants to avoid similar Assange ripples in relations with Washington — Quito’s top trading partner by far. And ending the politically costly asylum offered to Mr. Assange could serve as an opening salvo for a more balanced foreign policy in the region, Mr. Basabe said, in particular in moving away from the tilt toward the struggling leftist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Even more urgently, though, Mr. Moreno wants Mr. Assange to stop hovering in the background on the domestic front — where he is pushing a Feb. 4 referendum that will likely reinstate term limits and — if successful — would further constrain what is left of the political clout of his estranged predecessor.

“This means that Correa, at least in the short and medium terms, would be left out of the electoral arena,” Mr. Basabe said. “And combined with the internal tensions, it makes for an uncomfortable, unfavorable scene for Mr. Assange.”

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