The former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa has defended a multi-million dollar spy operation to protect Julian Assange in the country’s London embassy after an investigation by the Guardian revealed that his government had employed an international security company and undercover agents during much of the Australian’s six-year stay.
Correa, who was president of Ecuador between 2007 and 2017, called the Guardian’s “Operation Hotel” story “sensationalistic” and said the embassy security measures were “routine and modest” in an interview with The Intercept .
“When we have special security, we hire private security firms to provide it. There is nothing unusual about this. It would have been a violation of our duties if we did not,” he told the website.
Julian Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in central London since August 2012. He initially sought asylum following a series of legal challenges through British courts to a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden, where he was accused of rape and sexual assault, which he denies.
In February, a judge upheld a warrant for his arrest for skipping bail, meaning that although Swedish prosecutors have dropped their investigation into alleged sexual offences, Assange faces being arrested if he leaves the embassy, and fears he would be subsequently extradited to the US for questioning about WikiLeaks’ activities.
Correa, who now lives in his wife’s home country of Belgium, claimed Ecuador’s current government was not allowing the WikiLeaks founder to receive visitors, a move he criticised, describing it as a form of “torture” and a violation of the country’s duty to protect Assange’s wellbeing and safety.
The Guardian contacted Correa by email prior the publication of the Operation Hotel article but received no response.
An adviser to the ex-president said he had not been authorised to “forward” Correa’s responses but confirmed the former leader had received the questions. In his interview with the Intercept, Correa said that did not see the email until after the story was published.
The adviser confirmed that the Operation Hotel security operation to protect Assange cost around $60,000 monthly, a similar figure to $66,000 calculated by the Guardian in an investigation with Focus Ecuador.
Most of Ecuador’s main newspapers and broadcasters have published stories following up the Guardian’s investigation, which prompted intense debate on social media about the public spending on Julian Assange’s extended stay in the country’s London embassy.
The government of Correa’s successor, Lenín Moreno, has made no public comment on the article.
But the British ambassador in Ecuador, Katherine Ward, told local journalists Assange had broken the law and was “more or less a fugitive from justice”. Speaking at a public forum at a university in Quito, she added Assange prevented the UK from “honouring an extradition request from Sweden”.
“There’s accumulated indignation about the Assange case,” said Jorge Ortiz, an analyst of international affairs in Quito.
“Six years have passed and the people don’t understand why the government has given refuge to Mr Assange,” he said. “Correa handled public funds as if they were his to do with as he pleased. There should be an investigation into these completely unjustified costs.”
Last month, prosecutors in Quito opened an investigation into Correa and 10 former officials for alleged mismanagement of public debt during the last five years of his government.