Isolated, Surveilled, Expelled: How Ecuador Betrayed Julian Assange

10 June 2019 — Defend Wikileaks

The expulsion of Julian Assange from Ecuador’s embassy in London on 11 April 2019 marked the culmination of President Lenín Moreno’s years-long effort to renege on Ecuador’s commitment to protect the WikiLeaks publisher from the United States’ persecution. By the time he took office on 24 May 2017, Moreno had already begun working on undermining Assange’s protections, a process that Moreno’s predecessor Rafael Correa, who granted Assange asylum in 2012, called “one of the greatest betrayals in Latin American history.”

Because Ecuador’s left-leaning citizenry is wary of overt signs of Western influence after decades of Latin American intervention, the more US-friendly President Moreno could not immediately expel Assange upon taking office without affronting those who elected him, though he was quick to call Assange an “inherited problem” and a “stone in the shoe.” Instead, Moreno gradually ratcheted up restrictions, surveillance, and threats on Julian Assange over the course of his presidential term to build a pretext for ultimately revoking asylum and inviting British police into Ecuador’s embassy.

Isolation

Moreno’s first major move against Assange was to impose absolute isolation on 27 March 2018, suspending internet access and denying visitors. Moreno justified the restrictions by complaining that Assange had endangered Ecuador’s relations with Spain by expressing his opinions on social networks regarding the referendum in Catalonia.

  • 4 signal jammers installed to continuously block telephone coverage and WiFi signal
  • Assange prevented from accessing embassy’s landline telephone network
  • Ecuador banned his visits to further isolate Assange, including some of his lawyers
  • This isolation severely intensified the negative effects of detention on Assange’s physical and mental health

In October 2018, after months of backroom discussions between US and Ecuadorian authorities, Ecuador issued a “Special Protocol,” without explanation of its legal authority, imposing dozens of arbitrary and unappealable rules punishable by expulsion, including effectively banning any kind of interaction with other human beings during 80% the time. The protocol disregarded numerous basic rights, and a fundamental principle of asylum, that protection only ceases when the risk in relation to which the asylum was granted comes to an end.

Espionage

In May 2018, it was revealed that Ecuador had contracted specialized security services to spy on Assange, including his legal meetings, reporting back to Ecuador and to United States authorities. It is alleged that the security company hired by Ecuador has sold information relating to Assange, including to press outlets.

On 10 April 2019, the day before asylum was revoked and Assange was arrested, Wikileaks revealed a trove of evidence of the embassy spying operation, comprising thousands of photos, videos and audio recordings of Julian Assange, including of privileged legal, medical, and personal communications. On 3 May 2019, three men were charged with extortion in Spain following an undercover operation by Spanish police.

US Pressure

President Moreno has made it clear throughout his presidency that he is decidedly more amenable to cooperating with the United States than was his predecessor, Rafael Correa. In May 2019, one month after Assange’s arrest, the US and Ecuador signed an agreement to work together on “a series of economic and democracy initiatives,” opening a “new chapter of cooperation.” David Lewis, vice president of Manchester Trade Ltd., which has been working with Ecuadorian exporters, described Assange’s arrest as the “coup de grace” in the new partnership. “The move on Assange was the final dot the ‘I,’ cross the ‘Ts’,” he said.

The move was long in the making. Before Moreno had even assumed office in May 2017, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort flew to Ecuador to broker deals:

 “In at least two meetings with Mr. Manafort, Mr. Moreno and his aides discussed their desire to rid themselves of Mr. Assange…in exchange for concessions like debt relief from the United States”

In February and March 2018, US Government officials met with President Moreno and Minister of Defense Patricio Zambrano. One day after US SOUTHCOM’s meeting with Zambrano, Ecuador began the new regime of Assange’s isolation, and one day after that, Ecuador resumed negotiations with the US on a long-postponed free trade deal.

In June 2018, ten US Senators urged Vice President Mike Pence, headed to meet with Moreno, to raise concerns about Assange. After the visit, Pence confirmed that he did so:

“The vice president raised the issue of Mr. Assange. It was a constructive conversation. They agreed to remain in close coordination on potential next steps going forward,” a White House official said in a statement.

The following month, ahead of Moreno’s trip to London, Ecuador confirmed to press outlets that it would imminently withdraw Assange’s asylum.

In October 2018, after Ecuador announced that it would restore Assange’s internet access (under the restrictions of the “special protocol”), US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to Moreno explicitly warning that Assange’s status in the embassy could stand in the way of US-Ecuador relations.

“We are hopeful about developing warmer relations with your government, but feel that it will be very difficult for the United States to advance our bilateral relationship until Mr. Assange is handed over to the proper authorities.”

In January 2019, US officials interrogated Ecuadorian diplomats and demanded “electronic records, the visitor log book, identity documents of persons visiting Mr. Assange, audio-visual material, and reports about Mr. Assange and his visitors.”

In February 2019, Ecuador secured a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF to pay off the nation’s debts, in a financing deal that also gives Ecuador $6 billion in additional loans. The US owns a controlling share of IMF votes and retains veto power over major decisions.

After Assange’s arrest, Ecuador and the US were even more overt about their cooperation. On 16 May 2019, the countries signed the new agreement on economic partnership, and on 20 May 2019, after over a month of blocking Assange’s lawyers access to retrieve Assange’s property, Ecuador handed all of Assange’s property in the embassy, comprising documents, computers, and Assange’s entire legal defense, over to prosecutors in the United States. Assange’s lawyer in Ecuador noted that there had been no chain of custody. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy expressed serious concerns about Ecuador’s actions and its refusal to allow the UN expert to be present for the seizure.

Rolling back asylum

Rather than immediately revoking asylum, Moreno’s government steadily eroded its protections and worked to justify Assange’s ultimate expulsion. A month after reports of US VP Pence’s June 2018 visit to Ecuador in which he explicitly discussed Assange’s status in the embassy, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights issued a ruling that, without naming Assange directly, imposed obligations on Ecuador to protect him from US extradition.

One month later, disregarding the ruling, Ecuador informed Assange’s legal defense that it would no longer oppose his eventual extradition to the United States and leaked to press outlets its intentions to withdraw asylum.

In January 2019, Assange’s legal team appealed to IACHR to compel Ecuador to prevent extradition to the US, and on 13 March 2019, IACHR instructed Ecuador that it has an obligation not to expel Julian Assange, directly or indirectly, to the United States.

Expulsion

Though Moreno had spent more than a year laying the groundwork to isolate, smear, and undermine Julian Assange and erode his asylum protections, in early 2019 he found himself engulfed in an embarrassing corruption scandal. On 19 February, La Fuente published “The Offshore Labyrinth of the Presidential Circle,” detailing how Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno and his family used offshore companies (primarily INA Investment Corp) to make expensive purchases and receive potentially dubious payments. Shortly afterwards, a series of documents related to the same corruption scandal were published on inapapers.org.

Desperate to divert attention as his approval ratings plummeted, Moreno decided to falsely blame WikiLeaks for publishing the INA Papers. The president went as far as to claim that Assange had “hacked his phone.” Communications Minister Michelena made similar outlandish claims to CNN. On 2 April, the President stated that Assange had “violated the ‘conditions’ of his asylum” and that he will “take a decision” “in the short term.”

On 5 April, WikiLeaks received a tip-off by a source high up in the Ecuadorian government that Assange had “days to hours” before his asylum was withdrawn. The UN torture expert Nils Melzner urged Ecuador not to expel Assange from embassy, and the UN privacy expert announced plans to visit Assange in the Embassy on 25 April. Six days later, on 11 April 2019, Ecuador summarily revoked Julian Assange’s asylum and invited British police in to arrest him. Ecuador announced it had “suspended” his nationality.

On 31 May 2019, in a press release revealing his findings regarding the Assange case, Melzner called for the “collective persecution” of Julian Assange to end immediately. In a scathing condemnation of the “deliberate and concerted abuse inflicted for years” on Julian Assange, Melzner called on the UK government not to extradite him to the United States, where Melzner fears Assange “would be exposed to a real risk of serious violations of his human rights.”

Melzner sent official letters to the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Ecuador, urging each government “to refrain from further disseminating, instigating or tolerating statements or other activities prejudicial to Assange’s human rights and dignity and to take measures to provide him with appropriate redress and rehabilitation for past harm.”

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