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Holed-up Assange tells Obama to end WikiLeaks ‘witch-hunt’

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange (© 2009 AFP)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Sunday called on President Barack Obama to end the US “witch-hunt” against his whistleblowing website in a speech from the balcony of his refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy.

The 41-year-old Australian walked into the embassy in June seeking asylum after exhausting all legal avenues in Britain to stop his being extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over alleged sex crimes.

“I ask President Obama to do the right thing, the United States must renounce its witch-hunt against WikiLeaks,” said Assange in his first public comments since being granted political asylum by Ecuador on Thursday.

Assange praised the “courage” shown by the Latin American nation’s President Rafael Correa in giving him sanctuary, a move that has angered Britain which has said it would continue to seek his extradition.

London police ringed the embassy as Assange addressed some 200 supporters and hordes of journalists gathered outside the building, which he cannot leave without risking arrest.

But Assange gave no indication of what his next move might be.

He claims the accusations of sex crimes in Sweden against him — made by two female WikiLeaks volunteers — are politically motivated and that he would eventually be extradited to the United States.

WikiLeaks enraged Washington by releasing video of a US attack in Iraq, as well as tens of thousands of classified US documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assange on Sunday also called for US soldier Bradley Manning, the alleged source of a massive trove of secret government documents leaked by WikiLeaks, to be released from a military prison.

He claimed Manning “was found by the United Nations to have endured months of tortuous detention” at the US Marine Corps jail in Quantico, Virginia.

In his own case, Assange accused police of trying to enter the embassy after he was given asylum.

“Inside this embassy after dark, I could hear teams of police swarming up into the building through its internal fire escape,” he said from the balcony situated just above a line of police officers standing in the street below.

“But I knew there would be witnesses, and that is because of you,” he said thanking his supporters.

– ‘Freedom of expression’ under threat –

Assange drew parallels between his situation and that of Pussy Riot, the female Russian punk rock group that saw three of its members last week jailed for a performance in a Moscow cathedral criticising President Vladimir Putin.

“As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does freedom of expression and the health of all of our societies,” he said.

The Assange case has touched off a diplomatic row between Britain and Ecuador.

London has said it could invoke a little-used piece of legislation introduced in 1987 that allows it to revoke the diplomatic immunity of an embassy on British soil and go in to arrest Assange.

The warning was seen as a threat by Ecuador which condemned it.

However, Britain now says it would prefer a negotiated solution.

Despite Ecuador providing a haven for Assange, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said Britain had no choice but to seek his extradition to Sweden.

Ecuador has meanwhile received powerful backing from regional allies as they warned Britain of “grave consequences” if it breaches diplomatic security at the London embassy.

On Sunday foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations, meeting in Ecuador’s biggest city Guayaquil, expressed “solidarity” with Quito and urged the parties “to pursue dialogue in search of a mutually acceptable solution,” according to a joint statement.

Ahead of Assange’s appearance, his high-profile Spanish lawyer Baltasar Garzon said the former computer hacker was in a “fighting spirit”.

WikiLeaks on Sunday hinted that Assange would be willing to meet with Swedish authorities as long as Stockholm guaranteed that it would not extradite him to the United States.

“It would be a good basis to negotiate a way to end this matter if the Swedish authorities would declare without any reservation that Julian would never be extradited from Sweden to the USA,” WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told AFP.

Assange is said to be living in a small room within the embassy, which is situated in London’s upmarket neighbourhood of Knightsbridge near the famous Harrods department store.

His mother on Sunday praised hugely her son’s speech.

“It was fabulous,” Christine Assange said.

“He looks so well, he sounds well, he puts many so-called leaders to shame. He’s written and read a brilliant speech… which has inspired millions,” she said according to the Australian Associated Press.

Signature : Ben Perry LONDON (AFP)

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