LONDON — WikiLeaks
founder and wanted fugitive Julian Assange made a defiant statement from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London Sunday, railing against the United States and other countries he says are persecuting people who exercise their right to free speech. But he did not give any indication of his own plans, as he can not leave the embassy or British police will arrest him.
Assange stood in the doorway of a small balcony to address dozens of supporters and many more reporters and police officers outside. He thanked the supporters, and the government of Ecuador, which has granted him political asylum and refuge in its embassy.
He made no mention of the sexual assault allegations against him in Sweden, for which Britain has agreed to extradite him to face prosecutors' questions. That decision two months ago prompted him to flee into the embassy.
South American foreign ministers are backing Ecuador and its decision to grant asylum to embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy.
The ministers of the 12 countries forming the Union of South American Nations issued a statement Sunday expressing solidarity with Ecuador. The ministers reaffirmed the rights of nations to grant asylum without facing threats from other countries.
But Assange indicated that he believes his legal problems are related to his work as the founder of WikiLeaks
, a website which has published thousands of secret U.S. government documents. And he used the spotlight of media attention to make a series of demands.
“The United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks
," he said. "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.”
He described the WikiLeaks
staff as journalists who are “shining a light on the secret crimes of the powerful.” He also called for the release of U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning, who is charged with leaking secret documents to WikiLeaks
Leaking the documents is a crime, but the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press protects journalists and publishers from prosecution.
Assange appeared in a blue shirt and red tie, with his trademark shock of white hair closely trimmed. The tone and content of his statement surprised some observers because under the terms of his asylum in Ecuador he is not allowed to make political statements.
Earlier, his new legal adviser, controversial former Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon, emerged from the embassy and told reporters Assange has ordered his lawyer to take action to protect his rights. But Garzon did not provide specifics. He described Assange as being in a “fighting spirit.”
Assange says he is innocent of the sexual allegations in Sweden, and has offered to be questioned by the Swedish prosecutor here in Britain. But Assange and his supporters are concerned that he could be extradited from Sweden to the United States more easily than from Britain. Still, under European law, he could not be sent from Sweden to the United States without British approval.
Assange has not been charged with any crime in the United States and there is no request to extradite him.
He continues to be essentially stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy. If he leaves the protected diplomatic space, British police will arrest him. Britain has threatened to send police inside if the embassy engages in activity that violates its diplomatic status. But officials have indicated that no imminent move is planned. Still, the threat has caused an uproar, and Latin American countries are rallying to Ecuador's defense with a foreign ministers' meeting set for this week.