|Assange gets ready to address supporters and the media from the balcony of the embassy in London. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 19: With dozens of London police officers seeking his arrest looking on, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, took to the balcony of Ecuador’s embassy today to condemn the US government and cast himself as one of the world’s most-persecuted whistle-blowers.
Surrounded by supporters shouting encouragement, Assange, who has been granted asylum by Ecuador, did not directly mention Britain’s attempts to extradite him to Sweden because of rape and sexual abuse allegations.
Several supporters, however, claimed that the extradition efforts were a pretext to prosecute him in the US for leaking classified government documents.
“I ask President Obama to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks,” Assange read from a statement as he stood on the balcony.
“The US must dissolve its FBI investigation. The United States must vow that it will not seek to prosecute our staff or our supporters.”
A White House spokesperson, Josh Earnest, told reporters yesterday that the Obama administration considered the standoff a matter for the governments of Britain, Sweden and Ecuador.
Today’s appearance marked Assange’s first public remarks since he sought asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in June.
Assange, an eccentric hacker who has been both hailed as a champion of free speech and demonised as danger to public safety, burst onto the scene in 2010 when WikiLeaks posted secret documents on the Iraqi war as well as classified Pentagon documents on the Afghanistan conflict.
It also made available individual cables — the daily traffic between the state department and more than 270 American diplomatic outposts around the world.
Today, wearing a crisp blue shirt and red tie, his white hair shorn neatly, Assange used his 10-minute speech to criticise the recent prosecutions of those who have leaked classified materials.
Specifically, he hailed Pfc. Bradley Manning, an army intelligence analyst accused of passing huge archives of classified documents to WikiLeaks, as a “hero” and “one of the world’s foremost political prisoners”.
“As WikiLeaks stands under threat,” Assange said, “so does the freedom of expression and the health of all our societies.”
He spoke ominously of a “dangerous and oppressive world in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution and citizens must whisper in the dark.”
Today, the embassy, which is in the heart of London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district, was transformed into a global stage for Assange, who sought to broaden the issue well beyond the accusations that he faces in Sweden.
In fact, he made no mention of the women who accused him of rape, sexual molesting and unlawful coercion in Stockholm in 2010.
The address, given from behind the white balustrades of a small balcony of the redbrick apartment block, marked the latest dramatic turn in a diplomatic fracas which has captivated London.
Assange’s supporters held up placards protesting the Iraq war, American foreign policy and what they characterised as persecution of Assange and WikiLeaks among others.
As they chanted “the people united will never be defeated” and shouted cries to “sack the government, sack the police,” dozens of law enforcement officers surrounding the embassy looked on, unable to arrest Assange, but unwilling to let him leave.