The diplomatic standoff between Britain and Ecuador deepened on Sunday after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange used an extraordinary appearance on the first-floor balcony of Ecuador’s London embassy to berate the United States.
With Metropolitan police officers watching from metres away, Assange called on President Obama to abandon what he called a “witch-hunt” against WikiLeaks. He said an alleged “FBI investigation” against his whistleblowing website should be “dissolved” and that the US should go back to its original “revolutionary” values.
“As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of our societies,” Assange said, standing on a white balcony just above the pavement, and flanked by Ecuador’s yellow, blue and red flag. He added: “I ask President Obama to do the right thing: the United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks.”
Assange also thanked Ecuador’s social democrat president, Rafael Correa, for granting him political asylum. Correa’s decision, announced last Thursday, has set off a growing international row. Assange also thanked several other Latin American countries for their support – implicitly warning Britain that any dispute with Ecuador could rapidly snowball into a conflict with the entire region.
More than 50 police officers surrounded the embassy in Knightsbridge, south-west London, on Sunday, with a police helicopter in the skies above, but they were clearly under orders not to try to arrest the WikiLeaks founder. Assange addressed around 100 well-wishers, with supporters including Tariq Ali and former British ambassador Craig Murray making speeches from the street.
Assange spoke for 10 minutes. He appeared cheerful, if unsurprisingly pale. This was his first public appearance since he slipped into the embassy two months ago and the latest surreal episode in a soap opera that has seen him go from the High Court to house arrest in Norfolk and now to an embassy camp-bed in genteel Kensington and Chelsea, less than 50m from Harrods.
The 41-year-old Australian took refuge in the embassy after the supreme court ordered his extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of serious sexual misconduct. Assange pointedly did not mention those allegations on Sunday, instead casting his predicament as a universal one of free speech struggling to survive in a “dangerous and oppressive world”. Britain says it is obliged to implement EU extradition law and will arrest Assange the second he leaves the building.
Speaking from the balcony in SW1, Assange claimed that the Met had come close to storming the embassy late last Wednesday. Britain sent a letter to Ecuador last week stating that it believes it is entitled to arrest Assange inside the building under the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987. The claim has enraged the government in Quito, which says the 1961 Vienna convention protects its – and others’ – diplomatic territory.
Assange said: “Inside this embassy in the dark, I could hear teams of police swarming up inside the building through its internal fire escape.” He said the only reason the UK “did not throw away the Vienna convention the other night” was because “the world is watching”. He also thanked embassy staff, “who have shown me hospitality and kindness, despite the threats we all received”.
Despite the heavy police presence on Sunday, the Foreign Office is clearly trying to find a diplomatic solution to the row with Ecuador. Foreign secretary William Hague has made it clear there is no suggestion that police would “storm” the embassy.
But Assange’s provocative balcony appearance, in which he praised “courageous Ecuador” while disparaging Britain, his long-suffering host country, will have won him few new friends in Downing Street. Assange’s supporters claim that if he is sent to Sweden he is in danger of being extradited to the US to be charged with espionage. Sweden has vehemently denied this.
On Sunday Assange said: “Will it [the US] return to and reaffirm the revolutionary values it was founded on, or will it lurch off the precipice, dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world?”
He said there should be no “foolish talk” about prosecuting media organisations, mentioning not only WikiLeaks but also the New York Times, a paper Assange has previously bitterly criticised.
He also called on the US to end its “war on whistleblowers”, and demanded that Bradley Manning, the US army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking information, be released.
Manning has been charged with transferring classified data and delivering national defence information to an unauthorised source. He faces up to 52 years in jail.
Assange called him a hero and “an example to all of us” – drawing cheers from WikiLeaks fans packing the Knightsbridge pavement. “On Wednesday, Bradley Manning spent his 815th day of detention without trial,” Assange said. “The legal maximum is 120 days.”
Assange also made a rare mention of his children, “who have been denied their father”. He said he hoped soon to be back with them and the rest of his family, adding: “Forgive me, we will be reunited soon.”R Soft Web Hosting