19 Aug 2012

Julian Assange breaks silence on embassy balcony

The WikiLeaks founder calls for the US to end its ‘war on whistleblowers’ but gives no hint as to how his extradition deadlock will be resolved.

Mr Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning on sexual assault allegations, entered the Ecuadorian embassy seeking asylum on 19 June and has been inside for the last two months.

Last week it was announced he had been granted asylum, sparking a diplomatic row between Ecuador, Sweden and the British government, which insists it is legally obliged to hand Mr Assange over to the Swedish authorities.

Mr Assange appeared on the balcony of the building in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge. If he were to step outside the building, which is guarded by a heavy police presence, he would face immediate arrest.

Mr Assange denies the allegations and fears being transferred on to America if he travels to Sweden to contest them. He enraged the US government in 2010 when his WikiLeaks website published tranches of secret US diplomatic cables.

He told the waiting crowd the US had to decide whether it stayed true to its founding principles or creates a “dangerous and oppressive world” for journalists.

He added: “I ask President Obama to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks. The United States must dissolve its FBI investigation. The United States must vow that it will not seek to prosecute our staff or our supporters.

“The United States administration’s war on whistleblowers must end.”

Mr Assange called for the release of whistleblowers including Bradley Manning, a US army intelligence analyst suspected of leaking the information, who is being held at an American military base and faces up to 52 years in jail.

The WikiLeaks founder thanked Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa for granting him asylum, a move backed by other Latin American states this week.

President Correa has justified granting asylum by saying Ecuador wanted “to guarantee that he is not extradited to a third country, which could put his life in danger”.

Mr Assange ended his short address by referring to the jailing of the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot this week, saying: “There is unity in the oppression. There must be absolute unity and determination in the response.”

He left the crowd with few clues as to how the drama will play itself out or whether there is a realistic hope of him being allowed to leave the embassy and travel to Ecuador without being arrested.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has made it clear that Mr Assange will not be granted safe passage if he leaves the embassy and the building, close to the Harrods department store in central London, has been guarded by a heavy police presence since Wednesday.

Moral high ground?

Not all Ecuadorians think their country has taken the moral high ground by making the offer of asylum.

Cesar Ricaurte, a campaigner for press freedom and director of the Andean Foundation for the Observation and Study of Media, said it is hypocritical to defend freedom of speech abroad when journalists were persecuted at home.

“I’m concerned that the basis for granting the asylum was not very solid,” he said. “The Ecuadorian government’s arguments were based on hypotheses and possibilities, which are not a good basis for international policy.”

Others criticised Ecuador for getting involved in a dispute that is not their concern.

“Ecuador is involved in a problem between Great Britain, Sweden, the US, and so on. Ecuador would have been better to have nothing to do with this,” said Ramiro Crespo, director of think tank Analytica.