For more than two months he has been hidden away in an embassy building in west London, shielded from public view and the clutches of the Metropolitan Police. But yesterday the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange briefly emerged to thank his supporters – and sell himself to the world as the fearless victim of US oppression rather than a man on the run from sex assault allegations.
In an appearance from a first-floor balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy building in Knightsbridge, Mr Assange demanded the US "renounce its witch-hunts against WikiLeaks" and called for the release of Bradley Manning, the alleged source of his organisation's cache of US diplomatic cables.
In a 10-minute speech, Mr Assange chose not to address the sexual assault claims by two Swedish women which sparked the court action leading to his decision to seek asylum in the South American country.
"I am here today because I cannot be there with you today," he told the hundreds of supporters and journalists watching from across the street.
Some had wondered whether Mr Assange would exploit the attention of the world's media to tempt the Metropolitan Police into arresting him by stepping outside the door of the embassy. By seeking refuge in the embassy he broke the terms of his bail and still faces extradition to Sweden.
Instead he used his address to galvanise support and cast himself as a guardian of free speech. He also seized the opportunity to appeal to the US President Barack Obama to end the "war on whistle-blowers".
Mr Assange said: "As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of all our societies. We must use this moment to articulate the choice that is before the government of the US.
"Will it return to and reaffirm the values, 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 and citizens must whisper in the dark?"
Mr Assange's lawyer, Baltasar Garzon, yesterday confirmed that his client is seeking a way to guarantee himself safe passage out of Britain after Ecuador's decision to grant him asylum.Reuse content