The Ecuadorian government has removed its ambassador to the UK, sparking speculation over Julian Assange’s future at the diplomatic mission there.
The 47-year-old founder of WikiLeaks moved into the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London in 2012 while wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations in Sweden. Assange maintained his innocence and claimed the charges were nothing more than an attempt to extradite him to the United States.
Ambassador Carlos Abad Ortiz was forced to leave his post, according to an executive decree signed by Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno and published Wednesday. The envoy had been in charge of the diplomatic mission since 2015 and had been an influential figure regarding Assange’s future.
After the announcement, WikiLeaks said Thursday on Twitter, “All diplomats known to Assange have now been terminated to transferred away from the embassy.”
Carlos Poveda, a member of Assange’s legal team in Quito, Ecuador, told CNN he was disappointed with the ambassador’s removal, saying it was “not an isolated incident.”
“Abad was fully aware of all the details regarding Julian Assange’s case, and there was a relationship of trust but with distance with him,” he said.
The WikiLeaks lawyer also insisted the situation inside the embassy has continued to sour. “There is a hostile relationship between Assange and the embassy staff in the last few weeks,” Poveda said.
Since Moreno took office, Assange has repeatedly claimed Ecuador has been trying to make life more difficult in a bid to force him to vacate the premises. Ecuador has denied it, with Ecuadorian Attorney General Íñigo Salvador telling reporters last month that his country was “not looking to revoke” Assange’s asylum.
But the decision to oust Abad has fueled speculation that Ecuador is looking to push Assange out the door.
Fidel Narvaez, the former consul at the embassy, told CNN that Abad’s removal should be seen as a bad omen for the WikiLeaks founder and his asylum.
“It seems like Ambassador Abad does not fit in with the strategy that has given up on protecting Julian and that aims to annoy him and make him break (so that) he leaves the embassy on his own,” Narvaez said.
Narvaez considers Assange a friend and was part of the team that processed his asylum request six years ago. He said that career diplomats such as Abad should hold their positions for four or five years, meaning the envoy should have been in his post until sometime around 2020.
“I know Ambassador Abad and I have huge respect for him as a person and as a professional,” Narvaez said. “I’m sure he felt uncomfortable with the government’s hostile strategy toward Assange.”
The former consul told CNN that Abad would have opted to resign before handing Assange over to British authorities and that he expects whoever the successor is to be less welcoming to the Australian.
“The government is probably going to appoint someone who is willing to make an embarrassing move like this one,” Narvaez added.
With speculation rife over the WikiLeaks founder’s fate, Ecuador released a statement playing down any links between Abad’s removal and the Assange case.
“The case of London has nothing to do with the case of Assange,” Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Jose Valencia said. “We have a relationship with the UK that is handled between the two countries – for example, the fight against corruption. There is more activity in the UK apart from the situation regarding Assange.”
Valencia also reiterated that Ecuador had given Assange multiple options to conclude his endless residency at the diplomatic shelter.
“One is to leave and turn himself over to the British justice, facing the consequences for violating his bail conditions in the UK and the other one is to stay in the embassy but following the protocol rules that try to regulate his cohabitation in a workplace.”
Abad’s ejection from the London embassy comes a week after a bungled court filing revealed the US government’s possible efforts to charge Assange criminally over his work with WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks has been a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of any links between President Donald Trump’s associates and Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. WikiLeaks posted thousands of emails stolen from Democrats by Russian agents during the election.
The Justice Department investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks dates to at least 2010 when the site posted thousands of files stolen by the former US Army intelligence analyst now known as Chelsea Manning.
The shake-up in embassy leadership also comes days before new rules regarding Assange’s living arrangements are due to come into effect.
According to the new rules established by Ecuador, Assange must start paying for his own food, medical care, laundry and other expenses beginning December 1.
Assange’s legal team challenged the new residency conditions in court last month, but a judge ruled against the WikiLeaks founder, ordering that he must obey these rules if he wants to remain at the embassy. Assange’s attorneys have appealed the ruling.
CNN’s Ana Maria Canizares contributed to this report.