Spare a thought for Julian Assange. For the founder of WikiLeaks, living in forced asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and threatened with instant arrest the minute he walks out the door, one thing is certain: he won’t be going home for Christmas.
Mr Assange, who has not stepped outside the small building in central London since seeking asylum there in June, made only his second public appearance in six months last night.
Appearing at a first-floor balcony in front of 200 adoring fans and the cameras of the world’s media organisations, he gave a short address in which he entreated his supporters not to give up on Wikileaks – or on him.
The crowds that stood in constant vigil outside the Embassy in the early days of Mr Assange’s asylum have dissipated somewhat of late. Wikileaks has been subject, according to its founder, to a campaign of censorship. Credit card companies have blocked donations to the website – a move that Mr Assange said cost the organisation £30m and resulted in a 40 per cent pay cut for its small staff.
Meanwhile, he has not been seen in public since August. His appearance last night was viewed by many as a bid to reclaim the limelight after several months in which the world has largely forgotten about him. Supporters, many of whom came with candles and musical instruments, serenaded their hero with Christmas carols before his balcony appearance. A rousing chorus of “O come, let us adore him” raised a wry smile from one of the police officers stationed outside the embassy.
The building has been under constant surveillance since Assange’s asylum bid caused a major diplomatic incident between the UK and Ecuador. The UK’s Supreme Court has authorised extradition proceedings against Assange who is wanted in Sweden where he faces sexual assault charges dating back to 2010, which he denies. Ecuador’s government says Assange would face “persecution” if arrested, or be sent to the United States to be charged with espionage in light of Wikileaks’ publication of thousands of classified documents.
For a man who has not seen daylight in six months, Assange appeared to be in good spirits. Raising his fist in the air like a rock star he opened with: “Good evening London! What a sight for sore eyes.”
His speech, which lasted just 10 minutes, was not a traditional Christmas message. To shouts of “We love you Julian!” he railed against the world’s governments and media, and hailed the continuing work of Wikileaks in uncovering corruption and wrongdoing.
“True democracy is not at the White House, it’s not in Canberra,” said the 41-year-old Australian. “It is people armed with truth against lies, from Tahrir Square to London.”
As huge Bentleys and Rolls Royces rolled past – the embassy is in one of London’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, a stones throw from Harrods – he called on the enthralled crowd to “challenge the statements of those who seek to control us” and to “unite in common purpose and common principle”.
He made a brief reference to allegations that he sexually assaulted two female former Wikileaks employees in 2010, pointing out that he had never been charged with a crime and insisting that “his door was open” to anyone who wanted to talk to him.
But not, of course, to anyone who wants to arrest him.
The crowd seemed pleased to see their hero still playing the revolutionary. He promised that Wikileaks would release one million new cables in 2013, and said the organisation could damage “any country in the world”. Then with a final invocation to the crowd to “learn, challenge and act – now!” he raised his fist like a rock star again and vanished behind like a conjuror.