Stop witch-hunt, Assange tells US from embassy balcony

Aug 19, 2012

WikiLeaks founder calls on President Obama to ‘do the right thing’ but makes no promise to give himself up

JULIAN ASSANGE appeared on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London this afternoon to demand the US "renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks" and halt any attempt to prosecute him for publishing thousands of classified documents online.

The whistle-blowing website founder appealed directly to President Barack Obama to "do the right thing", but didn't say whether he would be willing to travel to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of sexual misdemeanour allegations if the US listens to his appeal.

The first reaction among observers was that Assange is digging in for a long stay at the embassy in Knightsbridge, where he has been holed up for the last eight weeks. His dramatic appearance had been hotly anticipated since it was announced on Thursday as it was thought he might risk arrest if he appeared - as promised - "in front" of the embassy.

If he steps out of Ecuadorian diplomatic space, he will be arrested by UK police and extradited to Sweden, so some observers thought he might be planning to give himself up. Instead a Juliet balcony and a PA system were the solutions.

Stooping under the low doorframe - from which the door had earlier been removed to accommodate his six foot-plus height - Assange used most of his speech to thank his supporters as he addressed a phalanx of reporters from all over the world.

He suggested that without the protesters who have camped outside the embassy, the UK might have flouted international law and invaded the embassy to seize him. He spoke of hearing "teams of police swarming up the building after dark through its internal staircases".

Earlier, The Sunday Times had quoted a close ally of Assange's as saying the WikiLeaks founder will travel to Sweden if a guarantee is given that he will not be extradited from there to a third country - but Assange himself did not say that in his short speech.

Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic investigative journalist, told the paper: "If the Swedish authorities give an assurance there won’t be an extradition and the UK authorities as well, that might go a long way in being a basis of negotiations."

The Times didn't say whether the Swedes were able or willing to offer such assurance - though they have said in the past it is impossible.

Assange, who has been holed-up inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London for almost two months to avoid being extradited, has previously offered to answer questions from Swedish investigators in London, though not to travel to Sweden.

Meanwhile, William Hague's bullish decision - apparently against the advice of his mandarins - to remind Ecuador in a letter of the existence of a 1987 law which he said might allow the UK to enter its embassy, seems to have backfired badly after it was interpreted as a threat to storm the building by Ecuador.

The Organisation of American States is to discuss the 'threat' at a meeting and Ecuador, saying it is unacceptable that its embassies should be threatened, wants to take the matter to the UN.

The Times reports that three former foreign secretaries - Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Hurd and Lord Owen, the former two being fellow Tories - warned that the letter could endanger the UK's own embassies.

The Sunday Telegraph quotes Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador as saying: “It was a big mistake. It puts the British government in the position of asking for something illegitimate."

He added: “If I tell you, 'I’m not threatening you but I DO have a very large stick here,’ it’s a question of semantics."

As the media circus took shape around Ecuador's Knightsbridge embassy in anticipation of Assange's 2pm statement, Paddy Power bookmakers were offering 25/1 on Assange tunnelling to freedom and 100/1 on him fleeing via hot air balloon or jetpack.

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It would be good if Assange could, as a British citizen, get even more protection from Britain than Salman Rushdie has had to continue exposing the truth about matters of legitimate public interest. Instead the spineless PM just wants to shovel Assange into the oven of the pathetic US justice system.

How is one petty criminal, if this is really about what they say it is, worth parking full time police, 24/7, outside the embassy of a foreign country? This is only about wikileaks. Governments the world over agree on one thing, if nothing else: anyone who challenges their authority will be crushed.