Poor Julian Assange. Eighteen months ago, the 41-year-old Aussie was a globetrotting Wiki-warrior with dashing, wizard-like white hair. Now, he is effectively imprisoned inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London while evading an extradition order to Sweden, where he faces sex crime accusations.
But before Assange goes to the effort of sneaking himself to South America in a human-size diplomatic pouch, he should know a few things about his safe haven. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa may have granted Assange asylum on humanitarian grounds, but the country is no peaceful paradise. Nor is Correa's own free-speech record spotless.
In September 2010, police in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito led a violent uprising against Correa over job benefits. Amid tear gas and burning tires, the economist-turned-president tore open his suit jacket and screamed, "Kill me if you have the guts!" He later called the incident a "coup" and warned there would be "no pardon or forgiveness" for those involved.
Four months later, El Universo editor Emilio Palacio published a scathing editorial titled "No to Lies" that called Correa a "dictator" eight times. It ended with a warning: "A new president, maybe your enemy, could drag you to court for having ordered [your soldiers] to open fire whenever they want and without notice on a hospital full of civilians and innocent people."
The next month, Correa accused Palacio and three others at El Universo of defamation. The president demanded they pay $80 million and spend three years in jail. The fine was later cut to a mere $40 million, but Palacio fled the country rather than go to jail. He was convicted in absentia. "Correa calls everyone who's not on his side a traitor," Palacio told New Times last year. "That's what he does to enemies."
So much for Correa as a champion of free speech. To his credit, the president pardoned Palacio and waived the $40 million fine this February. Even then, however, the president didn't forgive the men, calling them part of a "dictatorship of the media."
If Assange makes it to Ecuador, he'll be a free man. And he'll be free to speak his mind too — just as long as he doesn't criticize his new host.