On June 19, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange entered the door of the Ecuadorian embassy in London seeking political asylum, claiming an extradition order to Sweden to answer charges of sexual misconduct was a setup so he could be sent to the US to be tried for leaking national security secrets.
Over night, the South American country known mostly for its rainforest, exotic animals and bananas became embroiled in a high-stakes controversy, involving not just Assange but the UK, Sweden and the US.
When the British foreign ministry threatened to revoke the Ecuadorian embassy's diplomatic status to allow police to enter and arrest Assange, Ecuador's fiery leftist president, Rafael Correa, responded by granting the whistle-blower asylum.
London refuses to grant Assange safe passage. Bidding the charge for Ecuador is foreign minister Ricardo Patino, who makes no apologies for his small country's involvement in the high-profile Assange affair, or for the battle his government is waging against Ecuador's opposition media.
But why is Ecuador willing to confront far more powerful nations to defend a man who advocates unlimited freedom of expression?
On this episode of Talk to Al Jazeera, Ricardo Patino, the foreign minister of Ecuador, explains why his country decided to grant asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and he describes the government's relationship with the media in Ecuador.
When asked why his country decided to offer asylum to a man who had leaked information that Ecuador, by its own admission in the past, had thought should be kept secret, Patino explained:
"Julian Assange asked for Ecuador's protection because he feels threatened, he feels persecuted for his political opinions and for justly exercising freedom of expression. And he's afraid that as a consequence of this persecution he could be condemned in the United States to life in prison or to the death penalty. We, in our country, in Ecuador, believe in freedom of expression. In this country we don't accept the death penalty or life in prison."
On the matter of what Ecuador's government stands to gain, both domestically and internationally, from this decision - particularly in light of the country's upcoming elections, the foreign minister told Al Jazeera:
"A lot of people think it's strange that a government could act on principles. But we act on principles .... The only thing that ... we did consider, when we were deciding on the asylum for Mr Assange was to think about the United Kingdom. And that's why it hurt us so much when the UK sent us such a threatening letter against our country. Threatening to violently attack our diplomatic office in London .... From the start we did dialogue with them about the entire process."
On the topic of his own government's relationship with the media, Patino says:
"The president is not attacking the media; he's revealing the media's lies."
And finally, on whether Ecuador is now seen as having thumbed its nose at the US and the UK, the foreign minister concludes:
"What has happened here is that Ecuador has recovered its dignity at an international level. Unfortunately, previous governments in Ecuador did what the US or Europe told them to do. Even worse, sometimes they made decisions based on what they imagined the US or Europe wanted .... What happened since 2007, since Rafael Correa has been president of the Ecuadorians is that we have started thinking with our own head and we walk on our own feet. We have dignity and sovereignty."
Talk to Al Jazeera airs each week at the following times GMT: Saturday: 0430; Sunday: 0830, 1930; Monday 1430.
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