Assange to US: end ‘witch hunt’Comment on this story
For more than two months he has been hidden away in an embassy building in west London, shielded from public view and the clutches of the Metropolitan Police.
But on Sunday the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange briefly emerged from his self-imposed seclusion to thank his supporters - and sell himself to the world as the fearless victim of US oppression rather than a man on the run from sexual-assault allegations.
In a carefully orchestrated appearance from a first-floor balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy building in Knightsbridge, Assange demanded that the US “renounce its witch-hunts against WikiLeaks” and called for the release of Bradley Manning, the alleged source of his organisation's cache of US diplomatic cables.
In a 10-minute speech that was heavy on rhetorical flourishes but light on details of his future plans, Assange chose not to address the sexual-assault claims by two Swedish women which sparked the court action leading to his decision to seek asylum in the South American country. “I am here today because I cannot be there with you today,” he told the hundreds of supporters and journalists watching from across the street. Some had wondered whether Assange would exploit the attention of the world's media to tempt the Metropolitan Police into arresting him by stepping outside the door of the embassy. By seeking refuge in the embassy he broke the terms of his bail, and still faces extradition to Sweden.
Instead he used his address to galvanise support and cast himself as a guardian of free speech. He also seized the opportunity to appeal to the US President Barack Obama to end the “war on whistle-blowers”.
Assange said: “As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of all our societies. We must use this moment to articulate the choice that is before the government of the US.
“Will it return to and reaffirm the values, the revolutionary values it was founded on, or will it lurch off the precipice dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world, in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution and citizens must whisper in the dark?”
His speech may have been aimed at restoring his international reputation, but it also played well with the collection of supporters who had gathered to glimpse the self-styled human rights defender. At one stage, he looked into the crowd and made the “two-thumbs up” gesture.
Earlier, Assange's lawyer, Baltasar Garzon, confirmed his client was seeking a way to guarantee safe passage out of Britain after Ecuador's decision to grant him asylum.
Garzon said: “I have spoken to Julian Assange and he is in fighting spirits and he is thankful to the people of Ecuador and especially to the President for granting asylum.
“Julian Assange has always fought for truth and justice and has defended human rights and continues to do so. He demands that WikiLeaks' and his own rights be respected.
“Julian Assange has instructed his lawyers to carry out legal action to protect the rights of WikiLeaks, Julian himself and all those currently being investigated.”
Before Assange appeared, some of his supporters gave speeches and members of the crowd shouted slogans. The historian and writer Tariq Ali addressed them, claiming that Ecuador was backed by the “huge majority” of South Americans in granting Assange asylum.
Ali said: “There is a confrontation which is not of our choosing because the right to claim asylum is the right of any citizen”. In a statement read out on her behalf, the designer Vivienne Westwood said that, through his work, Assange has exposed the “lies” of the authorities. “His fight is our fight,” she added.
In a statement, the film-maker Ken Loach wrote: “Julian needs protection from all who care about freedom of information and real journalism.”
After Assange was granted asylum, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, refused to grant him safe passage out of the country, arguing that asylum laws should not be used to harbour alleged criminals. Assange was told that he was liable to arrest for breaching his bail conditions should he leave the embassy building.
Some supporters said afterwards that the speech was unlikely to affect the outcome of the battle between Assange and the authorities.
Naomi Colvin, a supporter of Assange and founder of the Friends of Bradley Manning campaign, said she believed Assange should face the allegations which have been made in Sweden but should be able to do so without fear of being extradited to America.
Another, who gave only the name Martin, said: “It was more for the supporters than anything else.” - The Independent