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An Ecuadorian ex-president said Thursday that the current administration's decision to grant citizenship to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would not convince British authorities to let him exit the United Kingdom.

"If that was the Foreign Ministry's strategy, they're quite naive. You could give him the pope's passport and the British authorities wouldn't let him leave," Rafael Correa, who served as president from 2007 to 2017, said in an interview with EFE in Quito.

Correa, whose leftist administration granted Assange political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August 2012, has lived in his wife's homeland of Belgium since last July, shortly after leaving office.

But he has returned to the Andean nation to encourage his countrymen to vote "no" in a Feb. 4 referendum called by his hand-picked successor, Lenin Moreno.

In his remarks to EFE, Correa examined Assange's situation in light of the Moreno government's recent decision to make the WikiLeaks founder an Ecuadorian citizen. That decision followed a request Assange had made to Ecuador's Foreign Ministry on Sept. 16.

Foreign Minister Maria Fernanda Espinosa said that on Dec. 20, eight days after Assange was granted citizenship, she asked the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office to consider granting the WikiLeaks founder diplomatic immunity, a request that London denied.

The Australian citizen sought refuge at the Ecuadorian mission in June 2012 after losing a battle in the British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors had been seeking to question him about rape allegations dating back to 2010.

Following Sweden's decision last May to end the probe, British police said that they would arrest Assange if he left the embassy, as he still faces charges of failing to surrender to the court that was hearing the extradition case.

Assange, who denies all the accusations, says he believes that if he leaves the embassy British authorities could hand him over to the United States for prosecution based on WikiLeaks' publication of classified documents.

Politicians and pundits in the US called for Assange to be prosecuted - or even assassinated - after WikiLeaks disseminated thousands of sensitive US diplomatic cables as well as a video of a 2007 attack that showed an American military helicopter crew killing a Reuters photographer and several other civilians in Iraq.

"I granted asylum to Julian Assange not because I agree with what he did, because I don't agree at all, but because it was clear that he wouldn't be guaranteed a fair trial, and there were even voices in the US that wanted to (prosecute him under a law) that would have implied the death penalty," Correa said.

"The Ecuadorian government must protect him," the ex-president said, stressing the importance of "acting in accordance with principles and values."

Referring to the naturalization process, Correa said he was unaware of the "legal and technical details" but that he believed Assange's years in the embassy, which is Ecuadorian territory, made him eligible for citizenship.

Correa and Moreno have had a political falling-out in recent months, with the former accusing the current head of state of betraying his "citizens' revolution," aimed at achieving wealth distribution and other goals.

In the upcoming plebisicite, voters will be asked among other things whether they want to repeal a constitutional amendment backed by Correa that allows the indefinite re-election of presidents.

A "yes" vote on that question would effectively bar Correa from leading the country again.