WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange may be able to keep a diplomatic safe haven after all.
Guillermo Lasso, the front-runner in Ecuador’s presidential election, says he intends to evict Assange from that country’s London embassy if he wins the April 2 runoff against ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno.
But he also said he will work with other governments to find Assange a new home — which may keep the controversial free-speech advocate from being extradited.
“We will ask Mr. Assange, very politely, to leave our embassy, in absolute compliance with international conventions and protocols,” Lasso said in an email exchange with the Miami Herald. However, “we vow to take all the steps necessary so that another embassy will take him in and protect his rights.”
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Even if another government were willing to provide Assange shelter, it’s unclear how he would be transferred. In the five years since he’s been holed up in the embassy, the Rafael Correa administration hasn’t been able to figure out how to move him to Ecuador, amid heavy police scrutiny in London.
Assange took refuge in Ecuador’s cramped London embassy in 2012 fighting extradition to Sweden where he is wanted on sexual misconduct allegations. Assange and his legal team fear that the Swedish charges are a ploy to have him extradited to the United States.
Lasso also noted that Assange had volunteered to leave the embassy if Chelsea Manning, who is serving a 35-year-sentence for giving WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of secret and confidential U.S. diplomatic cables, were to be pardoned.
On his way out of office, President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence, and she will be released May 17. But Assange argued that a commutation wasn’t a pardon and hunkered down at the embassy.
The Assange-Ecuador connection goes back to 2010, when WikiLeaks published Manning’s diplomatic cables. In one of them, Heather Hodges, the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador at the time, talked about alleged corruption in the Ecuadorean police force.
As a result, Correa in 2011 declared Hodges “persona non grata” and revoked her credentials. He initially offered Assange a job and residency in the small Andean nation, but it never materialized.
In 2012, as Assange was fighting extradition to Sweden, he took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in Knightsbridge, where he has been living with his tweeting cat and occasionally getting visits from Bay Watch star Pamela Anderson.
The ruling party’s Moreno has said he would continue Correa’s policy of letting Assange stay at the embassy.
Assange and WikiLeaks played prominent roles during the U.S. election, as the website published thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Clinton and others accused the website of being a Russian mouthpiece, saying Moscow had obtained the emails in hopes of throwing the race for now-President Donald Trump.
Assange has always denied that the documents came from the Russians.
Asked whether he thought Assange might have played a role in Ecuador’s razor-tight, first-round vote on Feb. 19, Lasso refused to speculate.
“We have no indication, or comment, about that,” he said.
A recent survey by the closely-watched Cedatos polling company gives Lasso, a former banker and politician, 52 percent of the vote versus Moreno’s 48 percent ahead of next month’s runoff.