Ecuador announced Thursday that it has granted citizenship to Julian Assange, the embattled WikiLeaks co-founder who has been holed up in the South American country’s London embassy for years to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape charges that were eventually dropped.
The news marked an escalation in tensions between Britain and the South American country, which had lodged a request to grant Assange diplomatic immunity so that he could leave the embassy. Britain refused.
“Ecuador knows that the way to resolve this issue is for Julian Assange to leave the embassy to face justice,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement that all but declared that the matter was not open to further discussion.
Even though Assange no longer faces an investigation in Sweden, he cannot leave the embassy because he is subject to arrest in Britain for jumping bail. He could also be extradited to the United States for leaking classified State Department documents.
Despite Britain’s firm stance on the matter, Ecuador’s foreign minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa said in a press conference that the country would seek other solutions to prevent Assange from falling into the wrong hands.
“There are well-founded fears we have about possible risks to his life and integrity, not necessarily by the UK but by third party states,” she said.
Assange stoked fevered speculation on social media Wednesday when he took to Twitter to upload a photo wearing a jersey of the Ecuadorean national soccer team, leading some to believe he had secured an Ecuadorean passport.
He has proven a divisive figure when it comes to American politics for his role in leaking hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. That leak led to the ouster of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz and exposed how closely connected the Hillary Clinton campaign was with the organization.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed an interest in arresting Assange owing to the number of leaks for which he is responsible, but government transparency advocates and some Trump supporters have hailed Assange as a sort of folk hero.