Assange soon to be on the loose?

For months, Ecuador has been looking for a way to end the years-long residency of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy. Did they decide to give him entry to their country as the escape hatch for both? The Daily Mail picks up on Assange’s tweet from today, wearing an Ecuadorian soccer jersey with no explanation, and links it to rumors that Ecuador has issued him a passport:

Julian Assange has been granted an Ecuadorian passport just a day after threating to kick him out of its London embassy, it has been claimed.

The Wikileaks founder posted a picture of himself wearing an Ecuador football shirt an hour ago, adding to the speculation he had been granted citizenship.

Yesterday, all the talk was that he may be expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy where he has spent the past five years avoiding arrest.

But insiders have said they believe the passport was issued to him last month.

That … would be rather odd, considering that Ecuador had just put out a public plea for mediation to rid themselves of Assange:

Ecuador’s foreign minister says the country is seeking possible mediation to resolve the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been in asylum at its London embassy for more than five years. …

Espinosa says her country is seeking solutions, saying the situation “is not sustainable.”

Just to be clear, Espinosa made those remarks yesterday. If Assange had been granted a passport and Ecuadorian citizenship (or at least residency), they could have flown him to Ecuador under diplomatic cover at any time, at least in theory. Why bother to ask for mediation at this point if they’ve given Assange the right to enter their country?

Besides, why would they want him at all? Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno repeatedly warned Assange to refrain from political commentary about his host country’s ally, Spain, to which Assange basically said try and stop me. The Guardian’s James Ball wrote earlier today that Ecuador’s interests in Assange as an “icon” have long expired, and only stubborn pride keeps them from booting Assange to the London curb:

What has changed is Assange’s value to Ecuador as a political symbol. Internal documents revealed that relations between embassy staff and Ecuador’s most famous asylee were fraught. Security staff were filing minute by minute reports of Assange’s movements to Ecuador’s intelligence agency. Last year, these tensions came to the fore as Assange was publicly reprimanded by Ecuadorian officials for interfering in the US election process – by publishing hacked emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign – while claiming asylum. Assange’s internet connection was eventually cut off by Ecuador, to his visible public rage.

When Ecuador first gave asylum to Assange, he was still a hero to many on the liberal left, and to many opponents of “US imperialism”. Today, most of those who still support Assange are hard-right nationalists – with many seeing him as a supporter of the style of politics of both Trump and Vladimir Putin. Assange is not the political icon he used to be.

This is perhaps what’s behind Ecuador trying to seek a way to end the standoff. Assange’s effect on foreign and diplomatic relations surely outweighs much of what Ecuador’s own diplomatic corps would like to do.

The problem for both sides is that neither wants to lose face: Assange wants to be a symbol of resistance against an overreaching US state, and does not want to admit his asylum was about his personal actions and not those of WikiLeaks. Ecuador does not want to suggest it made a mistake in granting Assange asylum.

And yet, Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo (among the most significant of its dailies) reports that it found an entry for Assange in the country’s civil registry. The entry shows that the country issued the passport on December 21st, almost three weeks ago — and more than two weeks before Espinosa asked for assistance in getting Assange out of their embassy.

But hold the phone — or at least the next flight to Guayaquil. The government of Ecuador released a statement later which cautions people about jumping to conclusions, emphasis mine (Google translation):

Julian Assange obtained international protection in August 2012 from the Ecuadorian Government at the time. The current Government has been responsible for finding alternatives to resolve this inherited situation, with full respect for the national legal framework, international law and human rights.

With regard to this case, the national government has complied with the Constitution, international conventions and the law, acting with the prudence and caution that warrants the protection of human rights and the defense of the right of asylum.

The Foreign Ministry reiterates that in the case of citizen Julian Assange will continue to seek solutions, in strict adherence to the norms and procedures of international law, in coordination with the United Kingdom, a country with which the best relations of friendship and cooperation are maintained.

Julian Assange, at the request of the Government of Ecuador, undertook not to intervene in matters unrelated to his asylum status.

Finally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador reiterates that it will not respond to rumors or distorted or decontextualized information on this case.

That statement went up at about the same time as the Daily Mail story and 89 minutes after El Universo first reported the supposed passport registry information. The emphasized portion sounds like a warning that El Universo may have misjudged what that registry does, or at least what the Ecuadorian government intended it to do. If that’s the case, though, why did Assange post the picture? Sports enthusiasm, or nothing more?

Even if Assange hasn’t been sprung, it’s now pretty clear that the Ecuadorians want him gone, one way or another. As Barr notes, there’s seemingly nothing to prevent it. Sweden withdrew their warrant, and the US claims not to have one for Assange at the moment. Assange could travel on his own existing passport [see update] to a country without any extradition agreement with the US if he left the embassy in London, or at least it looks that way at the moment.

The big question is what’s taking Ecuador so long to get rid of Assange, and whether they’re so desperate to get him out of the embassy that they’d really want to house him permanently as the only option. Opening the door and saying get out would be a lot simpler.

Update: As it turns out, Ecuador might have to provide Assange a passport even to kick him out. Democracy Now reported that Australia revoked its passport for Assange in 2010.