LONDON -- Ecuador's president said Thursday that the British government has given written assurances that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would not be extradited to face the death penalty abroad if he leaves his London embassy hideout, where he's been holed up for more than six years.
In the clearest sign yet that the Australian activist might eventually face the U.S. justice system, President Lenin Moreno said he was eager to bring an end to Assange's long residency inside his country's embassy, and had been working with British authorities to make that happen.
"I am not happy with Assange's presence in the Ecuadorean embassy. ... It seems to us six years is too much," Moreno said in a radio interview from inside his presidential palace in Quito, the nation's capital.
A "path has been made" for his departure, Moreno said, stopping short of saying his government would be open to forcibly ejecting Assange if he refuses to leave on his own.
Assange has been living in London's Ecuadorian embassy since June 2012, when he knocked on the door of the building in the upmarket Knightsbridge neighborhood and claimed political asylum. At the time, he was facing accusations of raping two women in Sweden and had lost his fight against extradition just days earlier.
The charges have since been dropped by Swedish authorities, but Assange has refused to step outside his embassy confines for fear of being detained. British authorities could arrest him for breaking his bail conditions, though he would be unlikely to spend more than a year in prison.
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Assange's chief concern is that once in custody, he could be extradited to the U.S. to face charges for his organization's role in the release of classified government documents.
Although the U.S. has never publicly acknowledged that it has charged Assange, Moreno's comments come three weeks after federal prosecutors in Virginia accidentally revealed, in court documents from an unrelated case, that he is facing criminal charges that were filed under seal.
It's unclear what charges have been filed, but U.S. officials have considered filing charges since he first began releasing reams of classified information through WikiLeaks.
Such a step could have implications for First Amendment protections because courts have long recognized the rights of journalists to publish secret government information.