QUITO Ecuador's foreign minister on Tuesday accused the British government of trampling on the human rights of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by refusing to allow him to travel to Ecuador, which granted him political asylum almost a year ago.
Assange, 41, took refuge in Ecuador's tiny embassy in London last June to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sex assault and rape allegations. He denies the allegations.
Ecuador's socialist president, Rafael Correa, angered the UK by granting Assange asylum in August on concerns that the former computer hacker might be further extradited from Sweden to the United States. Ecuador's government late last year said the Australian citizen was suffering from lung problems.
"By not granting him safe passage they are violating the human rights of a citizen, and every day that passes the effects of that violation hurt the person more and more," Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told Reuters in an interview.
"It's a whole year that this gentleman has spent without feeling the sun and that's really serious ... because this decision has been taken by a state that says it protects human rights."
Ecuador argues that Assange's deportation to Sweden is part of a scheme by the U.S. government to have the former computer hacker extradited to American soil so that he can face charges over WikiLeaks' release of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables.
U.S. and European government sources say the United States has issued no criminal charges against him, nor launched any attempts to extradite Assange.
Assange, whose platinum hair and high-flying friends made him a household name around the world, is said to be living a cramped life inside the modest diplomatic mission. He eats mostly take-out food and uses a treadmill to burn off energy and a vitamin D lamp to make up for the lack of sunlight.
Patino said the Ecuadorean government is preparing a document in which it will argue that Britain is legally "obliged" to give Assange permission to leave the embassy and travel to South America.
He said that talks with the British government over Assange's fate continue and that he hopes to discuss the issue with British Foreign Minister William Hague in "a matter of weeks or months."
Assange said last year he expected to wait six months to a year for a deal that would allow him to leave the embassy.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Eric Beech)