Julian Assange waits for Ecuador's election to decide his future

Esther Addley, Jonathan Watts and David Crouch in Gothenburg
Julian Assange has spent four and a half years in the Ecuadorian embassy. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

For Ecuador’s 15 million inhabitants, Sunday’s presidential election runoff will pose a fundamental question: whether to continue with a leftwing government that has reduced poverty but also brought environmental destruction and authoritarian censorship, or to take a chance on a pro-business banker who promises economic growth but is accused of siphoning money to offshore accounts.

But they are not the only ones for whom the result will be critically important. Thousands of miles away, in the country’s tiny embassy in central London, Julian Assange will be watching closely to see if his four and a half years of cramped asylum could be coming to an abrupt, enforced end.

Guillermo Lasso, the businessman and leading opposition candidate, has vowed that if he wins, the WikiLeaks founder’s time in the embassy will be up. Lasso has said he would “cordially ask Señor Assange to leave within 30 days of assuming a mandate”, because his presence in the Knightsbridge embassy was a burden on Ecuadorian taxpayers.

His government opponent, Lenin Moreno, has said Assange would remain welcome, albeit with conditions. “We will always be alert and ask Mr Assange to show respect in his declarations regarding our brotherly and friendly countries,” Moreno said.

The most recent polling showed Moreno at least four percentage points ahead of his rival, though earlier polls had Lasso in the lead, and many analysts caution that the results are within the margin of error.

Could this weekend really trigger the beginning of the end for Assange’s extraordinary central London refuge? Neither Lasso’s victory, nor precisely what he would do if he won, are certain (he later softened his position to say Assange’s status would be “reviewed”).

Leading opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso on the campaign trail.


Photograph: Henry Romero/Reuters

But the Australian’s legal team are nonetheless extremely worried.

“We are obviously very concerned that any candidate would threaten to undermine the protection that the Ecuadorian state has granted Julian,” said Jennifer Robinson, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers who is a member of Assange’s UK legal team. “No government should play politics with the granting of asylum. It’s a legal protection provided for under international law, Ecuador has granted that protection, they have recognised him as a refugee, and now they have obligations to protect him whatever happens in the elections.”

Assange’s team are reluctant to be drawn on what legal avenues they might be able to pursue, but he is understood to have instructed lawyers in Quito, while others are looking at whether they may have potential options through the Inter-American and European courts of human rights.

However, according to Arturo Moscoso, an Ecuadorian lawyer and academic: “No organisation, no law and no person can prevent the president from revoking the status of political asylum.” Assange’s asylum was granted by a presidential decree and could just as easily be removed by one, he said.

There are not thought to be further possible options open to Assange through the UN, after the UK and Sweden categorically rejected a finding by a UN working group that the Australian’s time in the embassy, where he first sought asylum in July 2012, amounted to “arbitrary detention”.

“Mr Assange is not, and never has been, a victim of arbitrary detention,” said a Foreign Office spokesman this week. “He entered the Ecuadorian embassy of his own volition and is free to leave whenever he wishes.”

British authorities are equally adamant that, should Assange leave the embassy under any circumstances, he will be immediately arrested and sent to Sweden, which has been seeking to extradite him over an allegation of rape dating from 2010, which Assange denies.

A poster of government presidential candidate Lenin Moreno near a campaign rally. Photograph: Dolores Ochoa/AP

After years of stalemate between Sweden and Ecuador, Assange was finally interviewed by Swedish prosecutors inside the embassy late last year; Ecuador submitted a report to Sweden in early January which was sent for translation. It is understood to have been submitted to Assange’s Swedish lawyers, though they are still waiting for the translation of some parts.

Prosecutors say they “will now analyse the report and will thereafter decide what further investigative measures may be taken”.

Robinson said: “It was the end of November when Julian was questioned after a delay of six years … and we’re still waiting for a decision on whether [Sweden] are going to pursue the allegations. It’s just unacceptable.”

Without a decision to drop the potential prosecution, Assange (who surrendered his Australian passport when he was initially arrested in the UK in 2010) would be flown immediately to Stockholm, where it is likely he would be subject to a hearing over whether he should be detained – bail does not exist in Sweden.

“The prosecutor would have to convince the Stockholm district court that he posed a flight risk, or that there was a risk of collusion,” said Daniel Roos, a criminal defence lawyer in Helsingborg. If Assange was judged a flight risk, he would be placed with other detainees (though Sweden never gives information about their whereabouts). Any contact with the outside world would require permission from prison authorities. To call someone, for instance, Assange would need first to send the authorities a letter asking permission to do so.

“It is an alien system from any outsider’s point of view,” said Roos.

Soldiers stand guard as staff from Ecuador’s national electoral council verify material before the vote. Photograph: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty

A finding that Assange was at risk of collusion could bring even tougher conditions – isolation for 23 hours a day, with permission to speak only to his lawyers. If he was detained, prosecutors would be obliged to indict within 14 days, but there is no legal regulation on how long detention can continue. In a complicated investigation the detention is usually three to nine months, but in the Assange case the investigation appears to be mostly complete.

Per Samuelson, one of Assange’s Swedish lawyers, said: “My demand will be that he is released and I will fight for that to happen.”

Assange has always argued that he sought asylum not to avoid answering the Swedish sexual assault allegation (three further claims were dropped in 2015 after the statute of limitations expired) but because he fears onward extradition to the US for potential prosecution over WikiLeaks’ publishing activities – the basis for Ecuador granting asylum.

Reuters reported last month that a long-running grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks has been expanded to include its recent leaks of CIA documents (further source codes were released on Friday), which Assange’s lawyers claim makes the grounds for his asylum even stronger.

“We are obviously hoping that there will be a change in approach from the new [Trump] administration,” said Robinson. “We have been seeking dialogue with the Department of Justice for a very long time, and we will continue to make those representations.”

But although WikiLeaks leaks of Democratic party material last summer and autumn are believed by many to have helped elect Donald Trump to the White House, it is not clear that the new administration takes a different view of the investigation to the previous one.

Assange’s best hope in the short term, in other words, is likely to be a Moreno victory. If that does not happen, international human rights groups might rally in his defence, according to Moscoso, or WikiLeaks might uncover material to put pressure on Lasso.

But Moscoso does not expect Ecuadorian public opinion to come to the rescue: “For many it’s a headache.”

The Wikileaks founder will be hoping that – for once – the polls are right.

Additional reporting by Marcela Ribadeneira and Eduardo Varas in Quito

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