QUITO, Ecuador — Embattled WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange took refuge Tuesday in Ecuador’s embassy in London and is seeking political asylum, the South American nation’s foreign minister said.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said the leftist government of President Rafael Correa was weighing the request. He did not indicate when a decision might be made.
The move comes less than a week after Britain’s Supreme Court rejected Assange’s bid to reopen his attempts to block extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning after two women accused him of sexual misconduct during a visit to the country in mid-2010. He denies the allegations.
Assange’s legal struggle to stay in Britain has dragged on for the better part of two years, clouding his website’s work exposing the world’s secrets.
Patino told a news conference that Assange had written to Correa, a U.S.- and European-trained economist who is closer to Venezuela than the United States, saying he was being persecuted and asking for asylum.
He said that Assange, who is Australian, had argued that “the authorities in his country will not defend his minimum guarantees before any government or ignore the obligation to protect a politically persecuted citizen.”
Assange said it was impossible for him to return to his homeland because it would not protect him from being extradited to “a foreign country that applies the death penalty for the crime of espionage and sedition,” Patino said in a reference to the United States.
Assange, 40, claims the U.S. has secretly indicted him for divulging American secrets and will act on the indictment if Sweden succeeds in extraditing him from Britain.
In the letter, he accused Swedish officials of “openly attacking me” and investigating him for political crimes, according to Patino, who did not take questions from reporters.
The foreign minister said his country would consider the asylum request “taking into account the respect for the norms and principles of international law as well as Ecuador’s policy of protecting human rights.”
Correa has himself been assailed by human rights and press freedom activists for using Ecuador’s criminal libel law in sympathetic courts against journalists from the country’s biggest newspaper, El Universo, who he says represent oligarchists seeking his ouster. This month, he told his Cabinet ministers not to grant interviews to members of privately owned media.
Correa’s government has also been leading a campaign by leftist Latin American nations that critics say aims to weaken the powers of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In November 2010 Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister said the country was offering residency to Assange. However, Correa told reporters the following day that neither he nor Patino had approved the offer and that it would need to be studied.
Assange shot to international prominence in 2010 with the release of hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. documents including diplomatic cables and a hard-to-watch video that showed U.S. forces gunning down a crowd of Iraqi civilians and journalists whom they had mistaken for insurgents.
Australian authorities have cooperated with the United States in investigating WikiLeaks’ conduct. The Australians have concluded that Assange has broken no Australian law.
Last month, Australian Prime Minister Julie Gillard said her country could not protect Assange, a former computer hacker, from other countries’ justice systems.
Her foreign minister, Bob Carr, said Washington had said nothing to indicate an indictment was planned there.