Latin America & Caribbean

Why has Edward Snowden turned to Ecuador for asylum?

Two cars can be seen outside the Moscow airport terminal where Edward Snowden landed on Sunday 23 June 2013
Image caption Two cars of the Ecuadorean embassy in Moscow were parked outside the terminal where Edward Snowden landed on Sunday

The government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino has said.

Edward Snowden had fled from the United States to Hong Kong after leaking secret documents revealing extensive US internet and phone surveillance.

On Sunday, he left Hong Kong for Moscow, from where he is reportedly going to make his way to Cuba, and on to Ecuador, where he is expected to formally hand in his request for asylum.

Ecuador, which has been sheltering Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy for the past year, was always going to be a likely destination for Mr Snowden.

While the Andean country has an extradition treaty with the United States, it allows for exemptions for "political asylum".

Media captionEcuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino: "We take care of human rights"

When Ecuador granted Mr Assange asylum, it argued that his human rights would be at risk if he were extradited to Sweden.

Sweden wants him to face sexual assault charges, which he denies. Mr Assange fears he could be sent from there to face justice in the US for publishing thousands of secret documents.

Ecuador says it is being loyal to its tradition of protecting those who are vulnerable.

Only last week, Mr Patino reiterated Ecuador's commitment to "protecting" Mr Assange.

"The Ecuadorean government maintains that the reasons for which Ecuador granted asylum are still relevant, and therefore there is going to be no change in his circumstances," Mr Patino said on the anniversary of Mr Assange's arrival at the Ecuadorean embassy.

Rocky relations

Wikileaks has said it is helping Mr Snowden with his asylum bid in Ecuador, where he is heading "via a safe route".

Ecuador's relations with Wikileaks did not originally get off to a good start.

In December 2010, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said Wikileaks had "committed an error by breaking the laws of the United States and leaking this type of information".

The president also revoked an invitation extended by his deputy foreign minister to Mr Assange to "live and lecture in Ecuador".

Image caption In August 2012, President Correa assured Julian Assange's mother Christine of Ecuador's continued support for her son

But in May 2012, the two men seemed to bond when Mr Assange interviewed President Correa on his programme on Russian state channel Russia Today.

President Correa welcomed Mr Assange to "the club of the persecuted" in a reference to what the Ecuadorean leader said were attempts by "corrupt media to depose" him.

Mr Correa has had strained relations with the media since first coming to office in 2007, when the left-wing president accused the major newspapers of targeting him and boycotting his reform proposals.

He described Ecuador's media as his "greatest enemy" and made the introduction of a new media law limiting the number of private broadcasters one of his main policies.

His opponents have argued that the president's decision to grant Mr Assange asylum was aimed at deflecting criticism about the media law.

By allying himself with the anti-secrecy campaigner, President Correa was trying to silence those condemning his record on freedom of expression at home, the argument went.

But there was also no shortage of people, both in Ecuador and abroad, who praised his "valour" for standing up to the United States.

'True friend'

So far, there has been no indication whether Ecuador will grant Edward Snowden asylum.

Foreign Minister Patino said Ecuador would "study thoroughly" Mr Snowden's application.

And if Mr Assange's case is anything to go by, that could take some time.

Even though Mr Assange's move to the Ecuadorean embassy had reportedly been in the works for months before he crossed the building's threshold, Ecuador took eight weeks to officially grant him asylum.

And a decision to give Mr Snowden asylum would not escape criticism in Ecuador.

Leading conservative newspaper El Universo quoted financial analyst Ramiro Crespo on Monday as warning that a decision in favour of Mr Snowden could endanger the renewal by the US of a trade act exempting more than 5,000 Ecuadorean products from import duty.

And with Mr Snowden's asylum request coming less than 10 days after President Correa's controversial media law was passed by the National Assembly, there will be no shortage of critics saying that opening the doors to Mr Snowden is just a way to drown out those accusing the government of "assaulting free speech".

"A true friend is he who comes to your aid when all others leave," tweeted Mr Patino after receiving Mr Snowden's asylum request.

The question now is which "friend" will be more important to Ecuador, the United States or Mr Snowden.

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