Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno said on Thursday that there was a “path” for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to leave the South American country’s London embassy, where he has lived for six years under asylum, if he so chooses.
Assange has claimed that Ecuador is seeking to end his asylum and hand him over to the United States, where prosecutors are preparing to pursue a criminal case against him. Wikileaks has released thousands of classified US military documents, among other disclosures.
“There is a path for Mr Assange to take the decision to exit into near freedom,” Moreno said in a local radio interview.
He noted that Assange still faces jail time in the United Kingdom for violating bail terms when he sought asylum to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where authorities wanted to question him as part of a sexual assault investigation.
The investigation was later dropped, but Great Britain says he will be arrested if leaves the embassy.
Moreno said the sentence for skipping bail would be “not long”. The UK has told Ecuador that Assange’s jail time would not exceed six months and that he would not face extradition to a country where he would face the death penalty.
Assange insists British authorities will hand him over to the US.
‘I do not like his presence, but we have to respect his rights’
Moreno didn’t say he would force Assange out, but said the Wikileaks founder’s legal team is considering its next steps.
“I do not like the presence of Mr Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy, but we have been respectful of his human rights and with that respect in mind we think that six years is too long for someone to remain nearly incarcerated in an embassy,” Moreno said.
Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy since 2012 when he was granted asylum while facing allegations of sex crimes in Sweden that he said were a guise to extradite him to the US.
But his relations with his hosts have soured to the point that Moreno earlier this year cut off his access to the internet, purportedly for violating the terms of his asylum by speaking out on political matters.
Assange, in turn, sued, saying his rights as an Ecuadorian – he was granted citizenship last year as part of an apparent attempt to name him a diplomat and ferry him to Russia – were being violated.
The mounting tensions have drawn Moreno closer to the position of Britain, which for years has said it is barred by law from extraditing suspects to any jurisdiction where they would face capital punishment.
But nothing would prevent it from extraditing him to the US if prosecutors there were to pledge not to seek the death penalty.