From skateboards to spying, Assange arrest followed drawn-out dispute with Ecuador

QUITO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ecuador’s decision to abruptly end Julian Assange’s seven-year asylum in its London embassy on Thursday followed a long deterioration in relations, driven in part by suspicions he was secretly fuelling corruption allegations against President Lenin Moreno.

FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen as he leaves a police station in London, Britain April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

British police on Thursday arrested the WikiLeaks founder, who sought asylum in the Andean nation’s diplomatic mission during the government of former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa – who saw Assange as a hero for leaking secret U.S. documents.

By contrast, Moreno took a dim view of Assange when he took office in 2017, ordering the Australian hacker to cut back his online political commentary, stop riding his skateboard in the halls of the embassy and clean up after his pet cat.

Moreno’s government accused WikiLeaks of being behind an anonymous website that said Moreno’s brother had created offshore companies that his family used to fund a luxurious lifestyle in Europe while Moreno was a delegate to a U.N. agency.

Moreno denies wrongdoing.

The leaked materials, dubbed the “INA Papers,” contained private photographs of Moreno and his family. After the release of the materials, Moreno said that Assange had no right to “hack private accounts and phones,” without directly accusing him.

WikiLeaks tweeted about the reports but, in messages and statements to Reuters, strongly denied that Assange was responsible for the leaks or had anything to do with their initial publication.

EMBASSY BEHAVIOR

Ecuadorean government figures on Thursday publicly described what they called Assange’s unacceptable and ungrateful behavior in the embassy. The government said it had spent $6.2 million on his upkeep and security between 2012 and 2018.

Foreign Minister Jose Valencia said Assange had been using a mobile phone that was not registered with the embassy and had warned the ambassador in January that he had installed panic buttons that he would activate if he considered his life at risk.

“It’s strange that Mr. Assange has insisted on being the victim,” Valencia told Ecuador’s National Assembly.

The interior minister, Maria Paula Romo, told reporters on Thursday that Assange had been “allowed to do things like put feces on the walls of the embassy and other behaviors of that nature.”

Valencia told the congress that embassy cleaning staff described “improper hygienic conduct” throughout Assange’s stay, adding that a lawyer representing Assange had attributed the issue to “stomach problems.”

Lawyers for Assange did not respond to requests for comment. Vaughan Smith, a friend and founder of London’s press Frontline Club who visited Assange late last week, told Reuters he believed the feces allegation was false.

“Julian has been under stress but seemed in a balanced frame of mind every time I have seen him. It doesn’t seem in character,” Smith said.

STAFFING CHANGE

Friends of Assange who visited him inside the embassy over the last several months say that since Moreno became president, almost the entire embassy staff was replaced.

The foreign ministry named a new ambassador after Moreno took office and fired one official, Fidel Narvaez, seen as close to Assange.

While embassy staffers were friendly to Assange during Correa’s presidency, Moreno’s new diplomats were polite to visitors but hostile to Assange, his friends said.

In early February, according to Ecuadorean government memos released by Assange’s supporters, Ecuador complained to Assange that he had deliberately pointed a studio lamp at a security camera the embassy had installed in a room where Assange was receiving visitors.

Later that month, the ambassador sent Assange a memo complaining that he had “shown once again an unacceptable behavior” by playing a radio loudly while meeting visitors. “This action disturbed the work being carried out by the embassy,” the ambassador said.

Assange had taken refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over a sexual assault investigation that was later dropped.

U.S. officials announced after his arrest on Thursday that he had been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, paving the way for his extradition.

Correa, in an interview with Reuters in Brussels, said Moreno had given Assange “to his executioners.”

Asked whether he had worked with Wikileaks to leak the INA documents, he did not directly respond. He said the documents showed the “rottenness” within Moreno’s family.

“I apologize on behalf of the Ecuadorean people. A government like that – such a treacherous, treacherous president – does not represent us,” Correa said.

Valencia declined to comment on criticisms of Moreno.

Correa is embroiled in a legal battle with prosecutors pursuing a case involving the kidnapping in 2012 of an opposition lawmaker. An court in Ecuador last year ordered him to be imprisoned pending a trial and issued an international arrest warrant. Correa denies the charge.

Reporting by Alexandria Valencia in Quito and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Additional reporting by Bart Biesemans in Brussels and Carlos Vargas and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Writing by Angus Berwick and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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