Assange berates US in embassy balcony speech


LONDON – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange berated the United States yesterday from the balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy where he has sought refuge from arrest, challenging president Barack Obama to end what he called a witch-hunt against his whistleblowing website.

Speaking from within the London mission to avoid being detained by British police who want to extradite him to Sweden for questioning over rape allegations, Mr Assange said the US was fighting a war against outlets such as WikiLeaks.

Pitching himself alongside Russian punk band Pussy Riot and the New York Times newspaper, Mr Assange said the US risked shunting the world into an era of journalistic oppression.

He did not mention the rape allegations.

“As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of all of our societies,” Mr Assange said, dressed in a maroon tie and blue shirt, flanked by the yellow, blue and red Ecuadorean flag with dozens of British policemen lined up on the pavement below.

“I ask president Obama to do the right thing: the United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks,” Mr Assange said in a 10-minute speech which he ended with two thumbs up to the world’s media.

Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa granted the former computer hacker political asylum last week, deepening a diplomatic standoff with Britain and Sweden.

Asylum in Ecuador marked the latest twist in a tumultuous journey for Mr Assange since he incensed the US and its allies by using his WikiLeaks website to leak hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic and military cables in 2010, disclosures that often embarrassed Washington.

Mr Assange (41) took sanctuary in the embassy in June, jumping bail after exhausting appeals in British courts against extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted in Sweden for questioning regarding allegations of rape and sexual assault against two women.

He says he fears Sweden will eventually hand him over to the US where, in his view, he would face persecution and long-term imprisonment.

To allow him to avoid arrest by stepping outside the embassy, a balcony door on an upper floor was removed, leading up to his first public appearance since seeking refuge in the diplomatic mission.

Speaking behind the condor of the Ecuadorean coat of arms on the white balcony railing of the embassy, Mr Assange thanked Dr Correa and Ecuador’s diplomats, whom he praised for standing up against oppression.

His attempt to escape extradition has touched off a diplomatic tussle between Britain and Ecuador, which accused London of threatening to raid its embassy and cast the dispute as an arrogant European power treating a Latin American nation like a colony.

Mr Assange, who praised a dozen Latin American countries which he said had rallied against Britain in the dispute, said the US was at a turning point.

He said US army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, accused of the largest leak of classified documents in US history to WikiLeaks, was a hero who should be released.

Manning faces life in prison if convicted.

“If Bradley Manning did as he is accused, he is a hero and an example to all of us and one of the world’s foremost political prisoners” said Mr Assange.

“Bradley Manning must be released,” he added. – (Reuters)