By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times –
LONDON — In his first public appearance since seeking diplomatic refuge, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Sunday called on the U.S. to end its “war on whistle-blowers” and to release Bradley Manning, the American soldier accused of passing thousands of classified documents to Assange’s secret-spilling website.
Assange issued his demands from the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy here in London, where he has been holed up since June 19 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault.
Assange, 41, urged the U.S. to “renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks,” which angered Washington by releasing a cache of State Department and Pentagon files last year. He described Manning as “a hero” and “one of the world’s foremost political prisoners.”
Assange, who is Australian, thanked Ecuador for granting him political asylum Thursday. He called it a courageous act by President Rafael Correa, who has been criticized for cracking down on journalists at home.
As he spoke, dozens of British police officers milled about below, ready to arrest him if he set foot off embassy property. The balcony from which Assange made his address was only slightly above street level but, as part of the embassy, still counted as Ecuadorean sovereign territory, out of police reach.
Assange made no mention of the allegations he is fleeing. The Swedish government wants him extradited so that they can question him over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women in Stockholm in August 2010. Assange acknowledges having sex with the women but denies using force or coercion.
He and his supporters insist the allegations are merely a pretext for his eventual extradition to the U.S., which they believe wants to try him for espionage. No charges have been brought against Assange in the United States.
“We must use this moment to articulate the choice that is before the government of the United States of America,” Assange told a crowd of supporters who waited outside the embassy, which is in one of London’s toniest neighborhoods, near Harrods department store.
“Will it return to and reaffirm the revolutionary values it was founded on, or will it lurch off the precipice, dragging us all into a dangerous and oppressive world in which journalists fall silent under the fear of prosecution?” Assange said. “I ask President Obama to do the right thing.”