A BULLISH Julian Assange yesterday edged closer to leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London after saying he would “soon” be departing the building that has provided him with safe haven for more than two years.
The controversial WikiLeaks founder, who remains wanted for questioning over alleged sexual assaults in Sweden, rejected claims he would be handing himself over to police and declined to address reports suggesting he has life-threatening health conditions.
Sporting a beard and hair that is longer than when he arrived at the embassy in the summer of 2012, he stressed that he had not been charged with any offence and accused the US government of being “intransigent.”
The 43-year-old’s appearance at a 50-minute-long news conference inside the embassy sparked suggestions that he would be leaving imminently.Sitting alongside Ricardo Patiño, Ecuador’s foreign minister, Mr Assange said Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, had “confirmed that I am leaving the embassy soon, but perhaps not for the reasons the Murdoch press and Sky news are saying at the moment,” a reference to reports which said Assange had developed a heart defect and a chronic lung condition.
He refused to elaborate, but speaking later, Mr Hrafnsson dismissed the idea that Mr Assange’s departure from the embassy was imminent, saying he would only set foot outside the embassy if certain conditions were met by the authorities.
He said: “He is ready to leave at any moment as soon as the ridiculous siege outside will stop and he is offered safe passage.”
Mr Hrafnsson said that Mr Assange’s “bag is packed” in preparation for his departure, but asked if there were plans for Mr Assange to hand himself in to British police, who maintain a 24-hour guard outside the embassy, he replied: “No.”
The Foreign Office said: “As ever we look to Ecuador to help bring this difficult and costly situation to an end. We are clear that our laws must be followed and Mr Assange should be extradited to Sweden.”
Mr Assange walked into the Ecuadorian embassy on 19 June, 2012 and was granted political asylum two months later. He said he had now been detained for four years, having spent time in prison and house arrest before going to the embassy.
He pointed out that the building, near the Harrods store in Knightsbridge, did not have an outside area so he was not able to see sunlight.
“It is an environment which any healthy person would find themselves with certain difficulties they would have to manage,” he told the press conference. “The United Nations minimum standard for prisoners is one hour a day of outside exercise. Even when I was in Wandsworth prison in solitary confinement, that was respected.”
He added: “Europe is meant to be a place where basic rights are respected. There has been very significant misreporting on this case and the asylum stand-off. I have not been charged with an offence in the United Kingdom or in Sweden at any time.”
Mr Assange faces questioning by prosecutors in Stockholm over claims made by two women in 2010. He denies the allegations and sought refuge in the embassy shortly after a court ordered his extradition. Mr Assange and his supporters believe he will be extradited to the US if he travels to Sweden, after Wikileaks published classified US military documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last week he lost a legal bid to have the arrest warrant against him cancelled. Speaking afterwards, Mr Hrafnsson made clear the rumours of Mr Assange’s imminent departure were not true.
“The plan, as always, is to leave as soon as the UK government decides to honour its obligations in relation to international agreements.”
Mr Patino, visiting the embassy to mark the second anniversary of Ecuador granting political asylum to Mr Assange, said there had been “two lost years” for everyone involved, including the two Swedish women at the centre of the saga.
“There has not been justice for anyone. The situation must come to an end,” he said.
Mr Patino referred to changes to UK extradition laws which he believed would mean Mr Assange would not be facing extradition if the case started today.
He said the UK government only wanted to look at the legal aspect of the case rather than for a political settlement. He said: “It is time to free Julian Assange and for his human rights to be finally respected.”
Mr Patino said the quality of Mr Assange’s life and health was being “seriously affected”.
During the news conference, police officers continued to wait outside the embassy in a round-the-clock operation Mr Assange said had cost £7 million.
4 August, 2010: Julian Assange reportedly has sex with a woman, Miss A, he meets at a seminar in Sweden run by the Social Democrats’ Brotherhood movement.
17 August: Assange allegedly has sex with a woman, Miss W, he met at the same seminar.
20 August: The Swedish prosecutor’s office issues an arrest warrant for Assange, citing two separate allegations involving rape and molestation.
21 August: The arrest warrant is withdrawn, with chief prosecutor, Eva Finne, explaining: “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”
31 August: Assange is questioned by police, according to his then lawyer, and denies the allegations against him.
1 September: Marianne Ny, the director of prosecution, reopens the rape investigation and says the investigation into the molestation allegation will be extended.
18 November: Stockholm District Court approves a request to detain Assange for questioning on suspicion of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.
20 November: Swedish police issue an international arrest warrant for Assange.
8 December: Assange presents himself at a London police station and is taken to an extradition hearing, where he is remanded in custody pending a later hearing.
24 February, 2011: Assange appears at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court, where District Judge Howard Riddle rules he should be extradited to Sweden.
2 November: High Court judges uphold the decision to extradite Assange at an appeal hearing.
30 May, 2012: The Supreme Court rules that Assange should be extradited to Sweden.
19 June: Ecuador’s foreign minister says Assange has applied for political asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London.
16 August: Ecuador grants Assange asylum, saying there are fears his human rights might be violated if he is extradited.
19 August: In his first public statement since entering the embassy, Assange says the US must end its “witch hunt” against WikiLeaks.
15 February, 2013: Police reveal the costs of round the clock guards at the embassy had by then reached nearly £3 million.
19 June: On the first anniversary of his entering the embassy, Assange says he will remain there even if the accusations in Sweden are dropped, expressing fears of being sent to the US for the release of classified documents on WikiLeaks.
16 July, 2014: A Swedish court rules that the arrest warrant for Assange will remain in place.
18 August: Assange says he will be leaving the embassy “soon”, but a WikiLeaks spokesman said he will only leave once the British government meets certain conditions. He puts the cost of the police guard at £7m.