National Security

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange now in war of words with the country protecting him

Catalan firefighters unfold a large banner with a ballot box at the Museum of History of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Banner reads: "Love Democracy."
Catalan firefighters unfold a large banner with a ballot box at the Museum of History of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Banner reads: "Love Democracy." AP

A vigorous campaign by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to break Catalonia off from Spain, further splintering Europe, is landing him in hot water with the government of Ecuador that has provided him with diplomatic refuge in its embassy in London.

Assange and Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno have traded barbs this week over whether his behavior comports with that of someone granted political asylum.

Assange challenged Moreno Thursday to try to silence him.

“If President Moreno wants to gag my reporting of human rights abuses in Spain he should say so explicitly—together with the legal basis,” Assange tweeted.

Friction between Assange and his Ecuadorean hosts has grown since May, when Moreno took office and surprised his nation’s voters by departing sharply from the path set by his predecessor, the fiery populist Rafael Correa. Moreno was considered Correa’s protégé.

Moreno has told two international television networks in the past week that Assange should watch his tongue and not harm Ecuador’s relations with its allies.

Assange has resided in Ecuador’s Embassy in London since 2012, granted asylum by the Andean nation to sidestep possible espionage charges that he feared the U.S. government sought to bring against him for publicizing classified U.S. government documents and cables.

“We gave him asylum but we have asked him in a cordial way to stop commenting on the politics of Ecuador and that of friendly countries because his status as an asylum seeker does not allow it. So he is surpassing that condition," Moreno told CNN en Español.

Moreno offered similar sentiments in an interview late last week with RT, the Russian state network.

Assange has taken a fierce interest in the Catalonia independence drive, and has tweeted more than 100 times in multiple languages in the past three days about the independence referendum set for Sunday.

Earlier Friday, Assange tweeted: “The Spanish government in Madrid is trying every way it can to stop Catalonia's independence referendum Sunday.”

Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled Sept. 6 that the Catalan independence referendum was unconstitutional, and that ruling was followed by weeks of protests in the autonomous region’s capital, Barcelona. Last week, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy deployed 4,000 police officers to Catalonia with orders to suppress what Spain considers an illegal referendum.

What may come of the referendum is uncertain, given Spain’s insistence that the vote is illegal. Some analysts say it may be a step toward Spain’s disintegration and a further challenge to broader Europe’s unity.

Ecuador, like most Latin American countries that won independence from Spain two centuries ago, maintains vigorous, even emotional, relations with Madrid.

The friction in Catalonia drew the attention of U.N. experts, who on Thursday called on Spain to respect freedom of expression and assembly ahead of the scheduled vote.

“Regardless of the lawfulness of the referendum, the Spanish authorities have a responsibility to respect those rights that are essential to democratic societies,” said the two U.N. experts, David Kaye and Alfred de Zayas.

Kaye is the U.N.’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression while de Zayas is an independent expert on promotion of a democratic international order.

The frictions between Assange and Moreno appear unlikely to lead Ecuador to end his status in its London embassy. But the personal antipathy between the two appears to be growing.

Shortly after taking office, Moreno dismissed Assange as a “hacker” and said hacking is an activity “I personally reject.” Moreno affirmed that Assange would be allowed to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy but warned him not to interfere in Ecuador’s relations with other countries.

Assange responded by saying that Moreno had slandered him as a hacker.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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