Ecuadorians rally around decision to offer asylum for Assange

Britain's forceful demands on Ecuador over Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has rallied Ecuadorians around their country's decision to grant him asylum.

Olivia Harris/Reuters
A placard is held by a supporter of Julian Assange outside the Ecuador embassy in west London, August 16.

Julian Assange was not a household name in Ecuador until Wednesday night, when Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño read out a letter delivered to Ecuador’s embassy in London.

In the letter, technically an aide memoire in diplomatic speak, the UK government explained that it has the right to enter Ecuador’s embassy if the Ecuadorean government were to decide to grant asylum to Mr. Assange, the founder of the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks

The letter was seen as a direct “threat” to the country, said Mr. Patiño. “We are not a British colony,” he said. “The days of the colony are over.”

This decision rallied support among Ecuadorians towards the decision – formally announced today – to grant asylum to Assange. Some hardliners, supporters of President Rafael Correa, protested outside the UK embassy in Quito on Wednesday night, while others cheered when Patiño officially announced Ecuador would grant Assange asylum in an early and longwinded press conference on Thursday.

For common people in Ecuador, it was good for their country to stand up against larger countries.

“The way the UK expressed itself was almost violent,” says Pablo Boada, a cultural consultant, reached by phone in Quito’s old town. “It awakened my sense of solidarity towards the Ecuadorean state as a whole."

As Ecuador is about to enter an election cycle, this sense of solidarity could well be harvested by President Correa, who is most likely going to run again for president in February 2013.

According to government sources who spoke to The Guardian earlier this week, the Ecuadorean government had already reached an agreement with Assange when the WikiLeaks founder decided to enter the embassy in London on June 19, officially asking for political asylum.

But despite this, authorities seemed surprised by the British reaction, and acted immediately to respond to what they saw as a “threat.”

“Nobody is going to intimidate us!” Correa tweeted.

For many abroad, who have read about Correa’s difficult relations with media this year, it might seem ironic that he is granting asylum to Assange in the name of freedom of expression.

In April, Assange conducted an interview with Correa for his TV show on Russia Today, a Russian state-funded channel in English, and the two joked about issues such as freedom of speech.

“Cheer up! Cheer up! Welcome to the club of the persecuted!" said Correa, who believes Assange should be granted political asylum because he is being politically persecuted. 

In recent years, WikiLeaks has begun publishing huge volumes of classified US military and diplomatic documents. Sweden, meanwhile, is seeking Assange's extradition in order to question him about sex crime accusations made against him. Some of Assange's supporters fear Sweden would give Assange over to the US, however experts note it would be simpler for the Americans to just extradite Assange from the UK.

In Ecuador, some within the business community are simply worried about their livelihoods. Some businessman saw the decision as a threat to Ecuador’s trade relations.

“My worry is that we can be seen as an unfriendly country,” says Javier Muñoz, who runs a car import business in Quito and was reached by phone. “If Ecuador starts fighting with these countries, this could have a very negative effect for everyone."

The United States is Ecuador’s main trade partner. Long-time US trade benefits with Ecuador, under the Andean Trade Preferences Act, are up for renewal this year. Businessmen like Mr. Muñoz are worried that the US Congress might decide not to renew the preferences following the Assange decision.

However, it is unclear whether anything ultimately comes of Ecuador's decision. 

Today the British Foreign Secretary said the UK does not recognize the principle diplomatic asylum and would not allow Assange to leave the country.

It might remain little more than a symbolic gesture for Ecuador, but a symbolic gesture that might have repercussions.

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