London – 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 on Sunday to condemn the United States government and cast himself as one of the world’s most persecuted whistle-blowers.
Surrounded by supporters shouting encouragement, Mr. Assange, who has been granted asylum by Ecuador, did not directly mention Britain’s attempts to extradite him to Sweden to face accusations of rape and sexual abuse. Several supporters asserted that the extradition efforts were a pretext to prosecute him in the United States for leaking classified government documents.
“I ask President Obama to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks,” Mr. Assange said, reading from a statement as he stood on the balcony. “The United States must dissolve its F.B.I. investigation. The United States must vow that it will not seek to prosecute our staff or our supporters.”
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters on Saturday that the Obama administration considered the standoff a matter for the governments of Britain, Sweden and Ecuador.
Mr. Assange’s remarks on Sunday were his first public statements since he sought asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy.
Mr. Assange, an eccentric hacker who has been both hailed as a champion of free speech and demonized as danger to public safety, burst onto the scene in 2010 when WikiLeaks posted secret documents on the Iraq war and classified Pentagon documents on the Afghan conflict. It also made available individual cables — the daily traffic between the State Department and more than 270 American diplomatic outposts around the world.
On Sunday, wearing a crisp blue shirt and red tie, his white hair cut neatly, Mr. Assange used his 10-minute speech to criticize the recent prosecutions of those who have leaked classified materials.
Specifically, he hailed Pfc. Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst accused of passing archives of classified documents to WikiLeaks. He called Pfc. Manning a “hero” and “one of the world’s foremost political prisoners.”
“As WikiLeaks stands under threat,” Mr. 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.”
In granting him asylum on Thursday, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, made an argument similar to the one Mr. Assange laid out.
Mr. Correa presented his move as a pre-emptive strike against American plans to take the Australian-born Mr. Assange and put him on trial in the United States on espionage charges for his role in publishing the American military and diplomatic documents.
If American officials have made such preparations, they have studiously avoided disclosing them.
While Mr. Assange has been holed up in the embassy, dozens of police officers have taken up positions around the building, promising to arrest him should he emerge.
The standoff is the culmination of a nearly two-year drama that has embroiled Mr. Assange in an extradition case involving accusations of sexual abuse by two Swedish women — which he has strenuously denied — and a British Supreme Court ruling ordering that Mr. Assange be placed on a plane to Stockholm to face questioning in the affair.
With neither side seemingly willing to back down, the diplomatic impasse could last weeks, months or even years.
On Sunday, the embassy, which is in the heart of London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district, was transformed into a global stage for Mr. 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.
A former British ambassador, Craig Murray, one of several supporters who spoke as a kind of warm-up act for Mr. Assange, said outright what those packing the street seemed to ardently believe. Dissidents like Mr. Assange, Mr. Murray said, “are fitted up with criminal offenses.”
Other public figures, like the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, also sent messages of support.
Mr. Assange’s address, given from behind the white balustrades of a small balcony of a redbrick block of mostly apartments, marked the latest dramatic turn in a diplomatic fracas which has captivated London.
Mr. Assange fled to the embassy in June from almost certain extradition to Sweden after losing a long battle at Britain’s high court. Ecuador’s government announced late last week that it would grant him political asylum.
Britain has said it will not allow him to move from the embassy, which is technically Ecuadorean territory, to South America. Mr. Assange has, as a result, been confined to the modest diplomatic office, surrounded by squads of Metropolitan Police officers in the streets below.
Mr. Assange’s supporters held up placards protesting the Iraq war, American foreign policy and what they characterized as the persecution of Mr. 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 Mr. Assange, but unwilling to let him leave.