Quito - Ecuador is likely to announce a decision on whether to grant political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange before the end of the week in a case with diplomatic implications around the world, President Rafael Correa said on Monday.
Assange has been taking refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 19 June to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on sex crime allegations.
The former computer hacker, who enraged Washington in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website published thousands of secret US diplomatic cables, says he fears he could be sent to the United States, where he believes his life would be at risk.
"We have to review the process in Sweden," Correa said in a television interview. "We have to look at the possibility that he may be extradited to the United States, that there may be a secret court there, that he may face the death penalty.
"We expect to have a meeting on Wednesday [with Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino] and I hope to make an announcement before the end of the week."
Leftist leader Correa said he sympathises with Assange but also feels respect for the British legal system and for international law. He said his government already has gathered enough information to take a responsible decision.
Motivation for choice unclear
Neither US nor Swedish authorities have charged Assange with anything. Swedish prosecutors want to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two WikiLeaks supporters in 2010. Assange says he had consensual sex with the women.
It is not clear how Assange would travel to Ecuador if he is granted asylum. By diplomatic convention, British police cannot enter the embassy without Ecuador's approval. But he has no way of boarding a flight to Ecuador without passing through London and exposing himself to arrest.
Correa last month met with Assange's mother, who travelled to the Andean country to plead for her son's asylum request. Patino also met with former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who was appointed to head Assange's legal team.
It is not clear why Assange, an Australian citizen, chose Ecuador but he interviewed Correa online in May and the two exchanged plaudits. The interview showed a shared distaste for US foreign policy and big media outlets.
"Cheer up. Welcome to the club of the persecuted," Correa told Assange at the end of the 25-minute interview.
Assange's choice of Ecuador has drawn criticism from supporters and unleashed a media storm. He sees himself as the standard-bearer of a global struggle for media freedom yet requested asylum from a government that watchdogs accuse of seeking to stamp out criticism in the media.
Like other Latin American presidents, including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, Correa is a fierce critic of what they see as US imperialism.
Correa expelled the US ambassador in 2011 after US diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks alleged that his government turned a blind eye on police corruption. In 2007, he refused to extend a lease letting the US military use the Manta air base for counter-narcotics flights.