Julian Assange calls on Obama to end WikiLeaks ‘witch hunt’

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange pleaded for President Obama to end what he called a “witch hunt” against WikiLeaks during a press conference on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London Sunday.

“As WikiLeaks stands under threat, so does the freedom of expression and the health of our societies,” said Assange.

“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 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?”

“I say that it must turn back,” he continued. “I ask President Obama to do the right thing. The United States must renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks. The United States must dissolve its FBI investigation. The United States must vow that it will not seek to prosecute our staff or our supporters.”

Assange, who was recently granted political asylum by the government of Ecuador, has been held up in the country’s embassy in London since June 19, 2012. The UK has stated that it will not grant Assange safe passage out of the country.

Assange has been fighting against extradition to Sweden where Swedish authorities want to question him for alleged sexual misconduct against two women. Assange and his lawyer have accused Swedish authorities of secretly plotting to extradite him to the U.S.

He became a target of the U.S. government in 2010 when his website, WikiLeaks, published classified U.S. government documents it had obtained about the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan, as well as secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

Supporters argue that Assange’s actions are no different than those of reporters for The New York Times or The Washington Post who regularly publish stories involving classified programs and documents. Assange’s opponents in the U.S., however, have demand his prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917.

“The United States must pledge before the world that it will not pursue journalists for shining a light on the secret crimes of the powerful,” Assange said Sunday.

“There must be no more foolish talk about prosecuting any media organization, be it WikiLeaks or the New York Times. The U.S. administration’s war on whistle-blowers must end.”

If the remarks of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during a November 2011 interview are any indication of whether the U.S. government will heed Assange’s plea, then the WikiLeaks founder shouldn’t be too optimistic.

“So I think you have to be both protective of the openness of the internet but recognize that just as in free speech in any setting, there does have to be a certain set of expectations,” said Clinton.

Clinton, whose own 21st Century Statecraft initiative has supported dissidents in oppressive regimes around the world, has defended America’s track record of standing up for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly amid criticism from Assange and others.

“But when an organization – and you mentioned WikiLeaks – when an organization steals information, which is what happened, that is – just because they put it on an internet doesn’t make it any more right than if they had passed it out on a street corner,” said Clinton in the November 2011 interview.

“So there still has to be a fundamental respect for and a real benefit of the doubt given to freedom, but there also has to be certain standards, expectations, rules that have to continue to be recognized.”

WikiLeaks recently returned to the spotlight for its release of thousands of private emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor, which it obtained through a hack by the hacktivist collective Anonymous in December 2011.

WikiLeaks has also been under a banking blockade by Bank of America, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union since December 2010.

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