Ecuadorians rally behind Assange asylum bid

Large crowd marches in capital to support granting political asylum to the WikiLeaks founder, who fears US prosecution.

Ecuador rallies for Assange
Britain's threat to raid Ecuador's embassy, where Assange is sheltering, has prompted outrage [AFP]

Hundreds of Ecuadorians have marched in support of their government’s decision to grant WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange political asylum.

Ecuador has expressed outrage at the British government’s suggestion, later withdrawn, that police could enter the country’s London embassy, where Assange has taken refuge, to seize him.

“We’re here to support the timely and correct decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange and also to reject the hostile reaction of Great Britain in cahoots with United States,” Betty Wanda, a 28-year-old lawyer among a crowd outside the presidential palace in Quito, said on Monday.

Many at the rally on Monday wore multi-colour bandannas with images of Assange and the message: “Without real freedom of expression, there will not be sovereignty”.

“I back the president 100 per cent because I believe that there’s freedom of expression in Ecuador. But there must also be freedom of expression at the international level and a journalist that has had as much significance as Assange must not be censored,” Christian Cuchi, 27, said.

There have been small protests outside the British embassy in Quito, and graffiti has sprung up showing support for Correa.

Wanted for questioning

Assange was meant to be extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over rape and sexual assault accusations, but jumped his bail and fled to the embassy on June 19, saying he feared the extradition was the first step in a process that would see him face an unfair espionage prosecution in the US.

Britain has pledged not to let Assange leave the country and has stationed police both outside and inside the Knightsbridge neighbourhood building that houses the embassy’s offices.

There is also a wider power game at play between Ecuador and fellow leftwing Latin American governments on one side and the US and UK on the other. A conference of South American foreign ministers on Sunday expressed public support for Ecuador’s stance. Rafael Correa has backed Assange’s claim that he is at risk of being sent to the US for punishment over WikiLeaks’ 2010 release of a deluge of secret US diplomatic cables and army documents.

In a speech from the embassy’s balcony on Sunday, Assange called on the US to end what he described as a “witchhunt” against him and thanked Correa for the “courage he has shown”.

Correa is already very popular and appears to be drawing more support with his stance on Assange.

He has portrayed the standoff with London as a principled struggle between a small nation against a “colonial power”.

The 49-year-old Correa, in power since 2007 and widely praised for high spending on roads, hospitals and schools, is expected to run for re-election in February 2013.

Ecuador has said it may take the case to the International Court of Justice but would first try to convince Britain to allow Assange to leave or give him guarantees that he would not be extradited to the US.

“We’re states with responsible governments that can negotiate directly about this problem. We have always been open to negotiations with the British and Swedish governments,” Correa told state-run television on Monday night.

Correa’s government, however, says there have been no talks since August 15.

Unlikely champion

The US state department said the struggle over Assange’s status was a matter between Ecuador, Britain and Sweden, and the US had no plans to interject itself into the dispute.

Assange has not yet been formally charged with any crimes in either Sweden or the US.

The ALBA bloc of left-wing Latin American governments, founded in 2004 by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s then-leader Fidel Castro, and the UNASUR group of South American nations have both given Ecuador strong backing in the dispute over Assange.

“If there’s something that many people agree with, it is the dislike, even the visceral hate of ‘the empire’. The anti-American sentiment brings us together, the phobia of everything that is or may be ‘gringo’, and, by extension, European,” columnist Fabian Corral, who is often critical of Correa, wrote in Ecuador’s El Comercio daily.

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks publicised Washington’s behind-closed-doors negotiations and power-broking, though much of the information stated bluntly what most observers already knew or suspected about US intentions.

The leaked cables on Ecuador included accusations that Correa’s government turned a blind eye to police corruption, and he responded by expelling the US ambassador.

Correa, who rarely shies away from public disputes, is not the likeliest champion for free speech.

He has been widely criticised for his hostility towards Ecuadorian media, but he says they are controlled by big business and are intent on weakening his government.

Supporters say the decision to grant asylum to Assange demonstrates Correa’s support for free expression.

State-run media have for weeks run stories portraying Assange as a champion of media freedom.

Yet after Assange was hired earlier this year by Russia Today, a Kremlin-sponsored English-language TV channel, some rights groups stopped considering the Australian as a friend of freedom of expression.

“So here he is aligning himself with one of the greatest adversaries of press freedom in the world that is Putin and then also one of the greatest adversaries of freedom of the press in South America, that is Correa,” Arch Puddington, vice-resident for research at Freedom House, told Reuters news agency

“Correa is doing this because he and Assange share strong anti-American views and I think that is the rational behind what Correa is doing, not an effort to ingratiate himself with press freedom organistions around the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies