Lawyer slams 'persecution' as Interpol hunts WikiLeaks chief

1st December 2010, Comments 0 comments

The lawyer of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Wednesday his client was being persecuted for publishing embarrassing US diplomatic cables as Interpol called for his arrest over rape accusations.

As Washington tried to calm new outbursts of anger from world leaders over the leaks, France-based Interpol said it had alerted all member states to arrest Julian Assange, who is wanted in Sweden on allegations of sex crimes.

Assange's mother said she did not want her son "hunted down", while his lawyer in London suggested the alert issued by the global police body could be linked to the "bellicose" US reactions over the dumping of the documents.

"This is a persecution and not a prosecution," his attorney Mark Stephens said, without revealing the whereabouts of the elusive 39-year-old Australian.

In Islamabad, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called in the US ambassador for talks as WikiLeaks' drip-feed of 250,000 US cables sent fresh shockwaves around the diplomatic community.

Suggestions by US diplomats that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could fall into terrorist hands "are misplaced and doubtless fall in the realm of condescension," foreign office spokesman Abdul Basit told AFP in Islamabad.

The anger stems from a 2009 cable in which then US ambassador Anne Patterson spoke of concerns that someone working in government nuclear facilities "could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon".

A 2008 cable reportedly warned: "Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world."

The cables cited serious British concerns and also quoted the Russians as saying that there was "no way to guarantee" that the 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan's nuclear programmes are all reliable.

They also said Pakistan's army chief had mused about forcing out President Asif Ali Zardari; laid bare US frustration at Islamabad's refusal to cut ties with extremists; and showed support among Pakistani cabinet ministers for US drone strikes.

Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin fired back after cables released by WikiLeaks described US Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying that Russian democracy was in retreat.

Putin said Gates was "deeply misled" and warned Washington not to interfere in Russia's internal politics, according to the transcript of an interview with CNN.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was furious at suggestions by US diplomats that he had secret accounts in Swiss banks and was involved in fraud, suggesting the cable's authors could face prosecution.

"I do not have one penny in Swiss banks," Erdogan said.

Argentina, meanwhile, said US cables that questioned President Cristina Kirchner's mental health were "shameful."

In Washington, the White House stood by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying Assange's calls for her to resign in the wake of the WikiLeaks release were "ridiculous."

Assange told Time magazine that Clinton should quit if she is found to have ordered US diplomats to spy on UN officials in violation of international agreements.

Gates separately tried to play down the mass leak, telling reporters that the consequences for US foreign policy were "fairly modest."

But Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, called for Washington to treat WikiLeaks like a terrorist organisation by freezing the assets of people working for it.

The hunt for Assange sparked by Interpol's "red notice" request would likely focus on Sweden and Britain, where the former hacker spends much of his time.

Swedish prosecutors issued a warrant for Assange on November 18 citing "probable cause of suspected rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion." He has failed in one bid to get it thrown out but a second appeal is pending.

Assange is said to rarely sleep in the same place twice. Ecuador's left-leaning government initially offered Assange residency, but President Rafael Correa backtracked Tuesday.

Christine Assange told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she was feeling "as any mother would be, very distressed" that authorities were looking for her son.

"He's my son and I love him and obviously I don't want him hunted down and jailed," she said from her home in Queensland.

© 2010 AFP

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