Diane Abbott suggested Julian Assange was in the “crosshairs of the US” due to his whistleblowing activities, prompting scorn from Sajid Javid on a day where the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest had divided opinion across the globe.
The home secretary claimed his Labour counterpart was “suggesting that we should not apply the rule of law to an individual,” when she defended the Australian in the Commons.
He had been living in the building since 2012 after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for him over an alleged rape. US authorities are also seeking to extradite him on computer intrusion charges.
Ms Abbott had told MPs she was concerned Assange could be extradited to the US – where he may face treatment similar to that of former US soldier and jailed whistle-blower Chelsea Manning.
“The reason we are debating this this afternoon is entirely due to the whistle-blowing activities of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks,” she said. “It is this whistle-blowing into illegal wars, mass murder, murder of civilians and corruption on a grand scale that has put Julian Assange in the cross-hairs of the US administration.”
She added: “Julian Assange is not being pursued to protect US national security, he is being pursued because he has exposed wrongdoing by US administrations and their military forces.”
In response, Mr Javid claimed “the whole country will be pretty astounded by the tone [Ms Abbott] has taken”.
He added: “Why is it whenever someone has a track record of undermining the UK and our allies and the values we stand for, you can almost guarantee that the leadership of the party opposite will support those who intend to do us harm? You can always guarantee that from the party opposite.”
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said Assange will continue to receive the usual consular support from her country's government, including a visit at his place of detention.
“I am confident, as the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt publicly confirmed in July 2018, that Assange will receive due process in the legal proceedings he faces in the United Kingdom,” she added.
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt himself said Assange was “no hero”, claiming he had “hidden from the truth for years and years”.
He said: “It's not so much Julian Assange being held hostage in the Ecuadorean embassy, it's actually Julian Assange holding the Ecuadorean embassy hostage in a situation that was absolutely intolerable for them."
Former US spy agency contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden, said that “Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.“
He added: ”The United Nations formally ruled his detention to be arbitrary, a violation of human rights. They have repeatedly issued statements calling for him to walk free—including very recently."
Upon its founder’s arrest, WikiLeaks posted a photograph of Assange on Twitter accompanied by a tribute.
“This man is a son, a father, a brother,” the post said. “He has won dozens of journalism awards. He's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2010. Powerful actors, including CIA, are engaged in a sophisticated effort to dehumanise, delegitimize and imprison him.”
Rafael Correa, the former Ecuadorian president who offered Assange asylum in 2012, attacked his successor, Lenin Moreno, for inviting British police into the embassy to carry out the arrest.
“The greatest traitor in Ecuadorian and Latin American history, Lenin Moreno, allowed the British police to enter our embassy in London to arrest Assange,” he said. "Moreno is a corrupt man, but what he has done is a crime that humanity will never forget.”
Prosecutors in Sweden have contemplated reopening the rape investigation into Assange following his arrest, despite dropping the case in May 2017.
Sven-Erik Alhem, a retired prosecutor and chairman of the NGO Victim Support Sweden, expressed doubts a refreshed investigation could bring about a successful prosecution.
“I’d think it would be fairly uphill to reopen the investigation [in Sweden], mainly because testimonies usually weaken with time and it's now been 10 years,” he said. “On top of that, the statute of limitation is drawing near, and Assange would need to come here.”
Vaughan Smith, a close friend of Assange, said the past seven years of the activist’s life had been a “miserable existence”.
“I could see it was a strain on him, but a strain he managed rather well,” Mr Smith said. “The thing that was most difficult for Julian was the solitude. He was very tough, but the last year in particular was very difficult. He was constantly being surveilled and spied upon. There was no privacy for him.”
Additional reporting by Reuters
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