LONDON -- One of London's most elegant corners was transformed Thursday into a scene of siege following reports on the British government’s stand concerning the continued presence of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is considered a fugitive, in Ecuador's embassy. There was a colorful combination of left-wing radical activists, Anonymous hacker group members and Latin American nationals, all gathed in a small side-street behind Harrods department store in Knightsbridge.
In a letter to the government in Quito, the British Foreign Office said that despite President Rafael Correa's intention to grant Assange political asylum, Britain reserves its right to enter the embassy and arrest him. In response, mounting numbers of protesters gathered outside the embassy's building, promising to physically block any attempt to arrest and extradite Assange.
Preceding the reports, the government of Ecuador, on the decision of President Correa, declared it will grant Assange political asylum, two months after Assange sought refuge in the embassy. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden after two women accused him of rape and following a failed legal battle against his extradition.
The founder of WikiLeaks has been residing in Britain for the past two years, since his organization published some 250 thousand U.S. diplomatic cables.
WikiLeaks supporters and Assange’s defenders were alerted in the first hours following the media reports and after a handful of activists standing guard outside the embassy tweeted on the arrival of a police convoy.
One of the protesters, a bearded American national who agreed only to identify as “Tony,” said: “we have been here on vigil for eight weeks, a small group strengthening Julian. Following the police’s aggressive move, arriving here in the middle of the night with eight vans, we called reinforcements and managed to stop them from storming the embassy.” The protester dismissed another statement by the Britain’s Foreign Office, stating there were no plans of entering the embassy.
Quickly, the gathering transformed into a joint protest against the governments of Britain, United States and Sweden, with protesters raising ghosts of colonialism and discussing the best ways to get their protest trending on twitter. “Hands off Ecuador,” they yelled at the police over and again, "Ecuador is not a British colony.” A few were arrested after confronting the police, although by most the protest was orderly.
Prominent among the protesters were teenagers wearing the white Guy Fawkes masks, identified with the hacker cooperative Anonymous, stating that they come to support WikiLeaks’ campaign for the freedom of information on the web.
“We are here to show solidarity with Assange,” said an activist, insisting to remain anonymous. “The British government thinks it can shut Assange up by bursting in and trampling over international law. If they want to question him, the Swedish police can come and do it here, in London. The British and Swedes are just colluding with the Americans, who want to do to Assange what they did to Bradley Manning.”
Many of the protesters were wearing T-shirts or carrying placards with the face of the American soldier who was arrested more than two years ago, and is currently being held in a military prison. Manning is suspected of leaking the diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Assange’s supporters are convinced that the Swedish investigation is in fact aimed at eventually extraditing him to the U.S., where he will be put on trial for publishing the cables.
More activists streamed to the small street throughout the afternoon, mingling with tourists and shoppers leaving the department store and obeying police's orders not to block the chauffeur-driven cars of local residents. Known activists, such as American film director Michael Moore, told their Twitter followers to go to the embassy and protect Assange. At the same time, media reports said that members of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement intend to hold a similar demonstration in front of the British Consulate in New York.
Every time a vehicle was seen leaving the embassy’s parking lot, dozens of photographers and activists surrounded it, but Assange remained incarcerated in the ground-floor room where he has been living for the past 58 days and was not even seen from its windows.
Following Correa's announcement to grant him political asylum, Assange issued a statement in which he thanked Ecuador, noting that “it was not Britain or my home country, Australia, that stood up to protect me from persecution, but a courageous, independent Latin American nation.” For him, Correa’s announcement has no immediate relevance since that at the moment he leaves the embassy he will almost certainly be arrested by police and the extradition process will be set in motion.
Less than a week after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, London is once again at the center of an international event (it is probably not coincidental that the British government had decided to wait for the Olympic torch to go out before they clarified their position to the Ecuadorean government). The British Foreign Office is in a double-bind, where it doesn’t want to allow Assange to continue thumbing his nose in the legal process, but is extremely wary of creating a diplomatic storm by sending police into a foreign embassy.
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