Sunday 19 August 2012
Hundreds of supporters of Julian Assange gathered outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for Julian’s first public appearance since taking refuge there and seeking asylum in Ecuador exactly two months ago. Ecuador announced its decision to grant asylum on Thursday, but the British government is petulantly refusing to do what even the most repressive government would do in similar circumstances, namely grant Julian safe passage out of the country.
The first speech of the day, by the Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon – who famously attempted to have General Pinochet extradited from Britain and who is currently Julian Assange’s legal adviser in relation to his asylum application and ongoing stand-off over safe passage – was due to start at 11.30am but numbers were building well before that: supporters, media folk and van-loads of cops from the Territorial Support Group (TSG).
Some supporters had stayed overnight, the vigil having been kept 24/7 since Wednesday evening when the police surrounded the embassy following the ludicrous implied threat to storm it and seize Julian. This matter has now been taken by Ecuador to the Organization of American States (OAS) and will be discussed by foreign ministers on 24 August. Only three countries voted against the meeting: US, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago.
The usual cordoned off media/vigil area opposite the embassy had been expanded to almost the entire length of the road for the occasion and, apart from in one small area that the press seemed to have claimed as their own, supporters, camera crews and reporters jostled – mostly with good humour – for enough space to stand comfortably and get a good view.
Cops engage in pointless road clearance
With sheer force of numbers (at one point we estimated around 300 supporters but it could well have been more later) people inevitably spilled beyond the barriers back onto the pavement behind and onto the road in front where many made themselves comfortable just outside the barriers without blocking traffic. There didn’t seem to be a problem – vehicles were getting through, everyone had plenty of space and I didn’t hear anyone complaining – until after a couple of hours the cops suddenly decided it couldn’t be allowed and set about clearing the road. With the world’s media watching, they must have been told to keep their hands off supporters, so we were treated to the spectacle of dozens of burly, seething TSG-trained brutes trying to present as kind, helpful and concerned for our well being.
The strain of all this started to show after a while: someone moved one section of barriers forward a few inches to help accommodate all the extra folk inside and instantly a TSG officer leapt on it and aggressively pushed it back into the people behind. The only ordinary cops I could see were the ones on the embassy steps…
Having cleared the road completely, the cops then set about blocking it again by standing right along the white line down the middle to no immediately obvious purpose or effect other than creating a bottleneck for the traffic they’d been so keen to keep moving.
As the speeches started, the sky darkened, the rain began to fall accompanied by a few rumbles of thunder and scores of umbrellas went up to protect video and sound equipment first, people second. Once it eased off half an hour later, we were back to sweltering heat and steamed dry in the afternoon sun.
It took hours to set up the sound system and Garzon didn’t speak until well after 1pm. When he did, it was straight into the media microphones with no amplification, so anyone more than a few feet away (that’s me) had no idea what he actually said. Also here.
With the sound system finally working, Tariq Ali (pictured above, right) introduced the rest of the speakers after a speech in which he referred to the OAS meeting this Friday where Ecuador will have the support of the vast majority of south American countries. He spoke of the suspension of habeas corpus in Britain through measures such as detention without trial, and said that when people no longer trust the legal system because of extra-legal actions both here and in the US (for instance as in Bradley Manning’s case), it’s a reason to seek asylum.
Messages of solidarity were then read out on behalf of supporters who were unable to be at the event in person.
These included Vivienne Westwood:
Through WikiLeaks, Julian continues to expose the lies of the authorities. It is a fight for freedom, for freedom of information. We are Julian Assange. I am Julian Assange.
John Pilger sent a message that WikiLeaks is about the public’s right to know and that Julian has seized back the initiative (by applying for asylum in Ecuador I think). It was hard to hear as someone in the crowd close to me had decided to loudly add his own thoughts during the speeches.
Since then, the text of John’s message has been published:
I have known Julian since he came to London and and gave the world vital information about Afghanistan and Iraq which governments had suppressed and denied.
What is always left out of the public portrayal of Julian is the moral dimension of WikiLeaks. The very mention of morality, of principle, embarrasses those who consort with great power; but ordinary people recognise it straightaway and are not embarrassed; they’re inspired.
WikiLeaks is about the public’s right to know, and the right to practice the kind of real journalism that has made Julian powerful enemies – enemies he should wear as a badge of courage. Indeed, the whole point about Julian Assange is courage. That’s why this is a day of triumph – triumph for human courage, for principle and for truth.
Julian has not broken free, not yet, but with the help of the admirable Rafael Correa and his comrades in this embassy, he has seized back the initiative from those who think they have a divine right to rule the world and to lie and commit war crimes in our name. We should celebrate our resistance and salute Julian.
Ken Loach’s message was that Julian needs our support, that he and WikiLeaks have revealed the dirty secrets of the powerful and that the US has no regard for due process or international law. “Solidarity with Julian Assange.”
Craig Murray then spoke at some length, drawing parallels between his own experience as a whistleblower when he was UK ambassador to Uzbekistan with Julian’s experiences and those of whistleblowers everywhere, in particular the experience of being smeared.
Dissidents are not charged with political offences, they are fitted up with criminal offences.
He also spoke about William Hague’s outrageous behaviour the day he decided he could violate the Ecuadorian Embassy in contravention of the Vienna Convention that renders embassies inviolable. Craig pointed out that it’s a crime to invade another country’s embassy, that anyone doing so is liable to prosecution and that any police officer entering the premises is likely to find themselves extradited to Ecuador.
Craig Murray’s speech in full is on his blog where he also says
I could not help but be struck by the ridiculously excessive police presence – hundreds and hundreds of policemen everywhere. I don’t think that the concept of freedom of information can be killed off by the extreme intimidation of a single man, but by Heavens, Hague and Cameron are going to try.
Tariq Ali concluded the solidarity speeches with a look at recent changes in governments across south America, where military Juntas have been removed by the people, these changes triggered by social and economic factors. He also referred to Ecuador’s ejection of a US military base, with President Correa retorting to the Americans that if Ecuador was to have a US base, then it would want its own base on US soil!
A few questions were taken from the media and the crowd, including one about the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act quoted by the British government. Craig Murray responded that domestic law cannot override international law unless Britain withdraws from the Vienna Convention, in which case no British diplomat anywhere in the world would have any protection.
Craig said he had spoken personally to current British ambassadors who are extremely unhappy at William Hague’s statement. Not one EU or NATO country has come out in support of Hague, who has made Britain look very stupid. South American countries and Russia have already spoken out against.
Solidarity speeches over, there was a 15 minute break while the sound system was set up on the balcony for Julian’s address. People started chanting
Only one decision: No extradition!
Julian addresses his supporters
A huge cheer went up as Julian appeared in the balcony doorway to read out his address. He thanked his supporters, making special mention of those who had turned out Wednesday night following the threat and the greatly increased police presence both outside and inside the building – he said he’d heard the police swarming up the internal fire escape. He thanked President Correa, the embassy staff and Ecuadorian people, the people of the US, UK, Australia and Sweden who have supported him in strength even when their governments have not, and those in government who are still fighting for justice, also his WikiLeaks team.
He demanded that Obama renounce the witch hunt against WikiLeaks and dissolve the FBI investigation, that the US war on whistleblowers must end.
We must use this moment to articulate the choice that is before the government of the United States of America.
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?
Julian then went on to talk about Bradley Manning, who has endured months of torturous treatment and has been in detention for over two years with still no trial.
He must be released. Bradley Manning must be released.
If Bradley did as accused, he is a hero and an example to us all. He is one of the world’s foremost political prisoners.
Looking at this week alone, Julian commented that on Wednesday it was Brad’s 815th day of detention, on Thursday his Bahrainian friend Najeeb Rajab was imprisoned for three years for a tweet and on Friday the members of the band Pussy Riot were imprisoned for two years in Russia for a political performance.
There is unity in the oppression. There must be absolute unity and determination in the response.
Winding down after the event
After the speeches were over, there was a flurry of reporters doing interviews while the Ecuadorian contingent and other Latin Americans got together and expressed their solidarity with Julian loudly and clearly with a steady chant from the steps of one of the buildings opposite the embassy, including call and response:
And so on…
Camera crews and reporters rushed over to record the performance and I hope some footage made it into mainstream news items. Ecuadorian as well as Colombian solidarity has been a significant feature of the vigil outside the embassy these past two months.
After a while, the TSG melted back into their vans and away and the road was ours again. Gradually, tripods were dismantled, wires rolled up and the media too disappeared into their vehicles parked up in the surrounding streets, leaving an enthusiastic crowd of supporters in peace to review the day’s events. There were perhaps 100 people still there when I left at around 5pm and a definite commitment to keep the vigil going for as long as it takes.
During the course of the day a number of us handed out hundreds of the WISE Up double-sided Assange/Manning postcards, triggering many questions and conversations. Many of the people who took information had just been passing. Hopefully some of you will get to read this blog and join the campaign.
Protect Julian Assange!
Free Bradley Manning!
End the Wars!