LONDON (Reuters) – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prepared to weigh into a standoff between Britain and Ecuador over his future on Sunday by speaking from a balcony of the Ecuadorean embassy where he holed up to avoid arrest by police deployed in force outside.
Ecuador has granted political asylum to the former computer hacker who incensed the United States and its allies by using his WikiLeaks website to leak hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic and military cables in 2010.
WikiLeaks had said that Assange would make a statement outside the embassy, stirring speculation that he would be arrested by British police arrayed in force outside the red-brick legation in the opulent Knightsbridge district of London.
But a workman inside the embassy could be seen on Sunday morning prizing the hinges off a door leading to a small balcony on the corner of the embassy, signaling that Assange would speak from that perch to keep himself safe from arrest.
“I cannot go into details of that for security reasons,” a spokesman for WikiLeaks said when asked how Assange would make his statement, which was expected at around 3 p.m. (1400 GMT).
Assange, an Australian, is wanted in Sweden for questioning regarding allegations of rape and sexual assault and Britain has said he will not be granted safe passage out of his Ecuadorean embassy refuge, which enjoys diplomatic status.
Assange, 41, took sanctuary in the embassy in June after exhausting appeals in British courts against extradition to Sweden. He says he fears Sweden would eventually hand him over to the United States where, in his view, he would face persecution and long-term imprisonment.
A police helicopter circled overhead while about 100 British police officers in black stab vests were stationed outside the embassy on Sunday morning, lining walls under the balcony where Assange was expected to speak.
The exterior door was earlier removed from the balcony above which the yellow, blue and red Ecuadorean flag was draped in what appeared to be preparations for Assange’s appearance.
The balcony was likely to be deemed part of the Ecuadorean embassy, thus insulating him from arrest by British police.
More than 50 of Assange supporters, many of whom have slept on sheets of cardboard outside the building since Wednesday, have decorated barriers with messages of support for Assange and placards reading “asylum – end the witch hunt”.
“They are not treating him fairly,” said Chantal, 28, a French pro-WikiLeaks blogger who had travelled overnight with a friend from near Paris in the hope of seeing Assange speak.
“Great Britain has shown it doesn’t respect human rights – political asylum is a right which should be respected by all countries,” she said. She refused to give her surname.
There was also a large crowd of curious passersby and bemused shoppers with bags from the nearby ritzy Harrods store watching the proceedings from across the street.
“Julian Assange is in fighting spirit,” Baltasar Garzon, a Spanish jurist and prominent human rights investigator who heads Assange’s legal team, told reporters outside the embassy.
“He is thankful to the people of Ecuador and to President (Rafael) Correa for granting him asylum,” said Garzon.
Assange’s attempt to escape extradition has touched off a diplomatic tussle between Britain and Ecuador, which accused London of threatening to raid its embassy and casting the dispute as an arrogant European power treating a Latin American nation like a colony.
Britain says the dispute is about its legal obligations and that Assange should be extradited to Sweden. But Assange says he fears he will eventually be sent to the United States although Washington has so far kept its distance from the dispute.
“The United States views this as a matter to be resolved between the British government, the Ecuadorean government and the Swedish government,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said to reporters travelling with U.S. President Barack Obama.
“At this point, we have not intervened in this matter and I don’t have any guidance for you right now on whether or not that’s something we would intervene in,” Earnest said.
(Writing by Karolin Schaps and Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice in London and Morag MacKinnon in Sydney; Editing by Mark Heinrich)