QUITO – Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa confirmed on Thursday that her country granted citizenship to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in December.
Espinosa made the remarks in a statement to reporters, saying Assange, who has spent the last five and a half years holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, was granted citizenship on Dec. 12.
The decision followed a request Assange had made to Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry on Sept. 16.
The Australian citizen sought refuge at the Ecuadorian mission in June 2012 after losing a battle in the British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors had been seeking to question him about rape allegations dating back to 2010.
He was granted political asylum in August 2012 by Ecuador’s previous government, which was headed by leftist President Rafael Correa.
Following Sweden’s decision in May to end the probe, British police said that they would arrest Assange if he left the embassy, as he still faces charges of failing to surrender to the court that was hearing the extradition case.
Assange, who denies all the accusations, says he believes that if he leaves the embassy, British authorities could hand him over to the United States for prosecution based on WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents.
Politicians and pundits in the US called for Assange to be prosecuted – or even assassinated – after WikiLeaks disseminated thousands of US diplomatic cables as well as a video of a 2007 attack that showed an American military helicopter crew killing a Reuters photographer and several other civilians in Iraq.
Ecuador’s top diplomat said on Thursday that the granting of citizenship to Assange gave him an “additional ring of protection” and strengthened his condition as an internationally protected person.
She told reporters that any transfer of Assange would need to be arranged previously with the United Kingdom, adding that the Foreign Ministry was analyzing that possibility but that conditions did not exist at present for the WikiLeaks founder to leave the embassy.
The cause of concern is not the charges Assange faces in the UK but rather “possible risks to the life and physical well-being of Mr. Assange, not necessarily from the United Kingdom but possibly from third countries,” Espinosa said.
She also confirmed that on Dec. 20 Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry asked the UK to consider accrediting Assange as a member of Ecuador’s diplomatic corps, adding that the request was denied a day later.
Even so, Espinosa said the administration of current Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno was continuing to seek a “fair, definitive and dignified” solution that would be acceptable for all parties involved and in keeping with international law.