Julian Assange, the balcony Bolívar of Knightsbridge
The WikiLeaks founder blew a giant raspberry in the face of William Hague from the Ecuadorean embassy in London
The balcony of Ecuador’s London embassy is a mere 10ft above street level. Theoretically speaking, it might have been possible for a tall Metropolitan police officer to have leapt up and grabbed Julian Assange by the leg. Or possibly his foot.
Certainly, there were plenty of men in blue to be seen around the embassy on Sunday. Scotland Yard was taking no chances. Before Assange appeared at the balcony – in scenes that might have sprung from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – officers had comprehensively sealed off the area.
Several were lurking at the side of the red brick building. Others stood grim-faced in front of a scrum of media and WikiLeaks supporters packing the Knightsbridge pavement. There was even a police helicopter. It circled noisily overhead. If Assange had planned to escape by hot-air balloon – well, the Met had that one covered.
At around 2.30pm Assange emerged on to the balcony, a pallid figure dressed in a business-blue shirt and maroon tie. There was an enormous roar. Assange managed a thumbs-up, then tapped the microphone and inquired: “Can you hear me?” This, perhaps, was the moment for someone to shout: “‘E’s not the Messiah! ‘E’s a very naughty boy!” But from the Met officers there was a gloomy silence.
As part of his asylum deal with Ecuador, Assange had agreed not to make any political statements from the embassy – the cramped ground and first floors of an SW1 townhouse, right next to Harrods. In reality, the manner of his balcony appearance – just feet away from the police, next to a large Ecuadorean flag – amounted to a giant, taunting raspberry blown in the face of William Hague.
In a carefully crafted 10-minute speech, the WikiLeaks founder thanked those who had made his escape from a Swedish extradition warrant possible: Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa (who is having a good Assange crisis); the country’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, and the freedom-loving nations of South America. He mentioned many of them by name, Argentina twice.
Unsurprisingly, Assange reserved his harshest words for the US. He called on President Obama to stop its “witch-hunt against WikiLeaks”. And he said the FBI should “dissolve” its investigation against him. He also called for Bradley Manning, the alleged source of classified material from US war logs and diplomatic missions passed to WikiLeaks, to be released from military jail.
Assange’s supporters loved it. So did his celebrity backers. Earlier, Craig Murray, the UK’s former ambassador in Tashkent, denounced Hague in front of the embassy for his “threat” last week to enter the building and seize Assange. Murray said “neo-conservative juntas” now ran western Europe and said that he too had sheltered dissidents inside the British embassy in Uzbekistan. Tariq Ali, meanwhile, said Europe had much to learn from South America. We should “change” our “gaze”. Someone shouted back: “So should you, mate.”
But for Assange sceptics this was more of the same: an attempt to yoke the principles of free speech and justice (good) with a criminal case in Sweden (a matter for the courts). Assange said nothing about the allegations of sexual misconduct that have got him into this mess – allegations separate from any theoretical attempt to indict him in the US.
Assange also called for the release of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. His appeal might have had more credibility had Assange not worked for Russia Today, the TV channel owned by the same Kremlin that put the band in jail.
Nonetheless, the balcony drama was another PR triumph for Assange, now recast as a South American revolutionary hero akin to Simón Bolívar. Filming from the balcony was a crew from Ecuador state TV. This is all good news for Correa, who has written up this latest episode in the Assange soap opera as one small nation’s plucky battle against the evils of Anglo-American imperialism.
Still, one senses Scotland Yard may get the last laugh. Ecuador is a long way away. “He’s not going anywhere,” one police officer said of Assange, as the crowds melted away in the rain.