LONDON/NEW YORK. — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared victory yesterday, expressing vindication over a UN panel’s judgment that the governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom have “arbitrarily detained” him since 2010.
Assange appeared on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy clutching a copy of the UN report. He castigated the governments that continue to persecute him, saying his children had been deprived of their father for five and a half years.
“My children are completely innocent parties, they are not in politics, they are not into holding governments to account. It’s time they had their father back. That will happen,” he said to cheers from the crowd below and to the odd heckler. At one point he said, can anyone shut that person down.
He went on to say that there would consequences for the governments that have put him in his predicament.
“There will be criminal consequences for those parties involved,” he said, without going into specifics.
But does the UN decision mean Assange will become a free man? Or that anything definitively about the cases against him have changed?
Assange is wanted in Sweden on rape allegations, and the UK arrested him in 2010. He has said he’s afraid that if he leaves the embassy, he could end up being extradited and facing the death penalty in the United States over allegations of revealing government secrets through his site, WikiLeaks.
Speaking to reporters yesterday via video, Assange called the decision “legally binding.”
He warned that failure to act on the ruling would undermine “the UN system, and there are consequences of doing that.” He said Sweden and the UK would not be “treated seriously as international players” and possibly could be taken off key committees or even face sanctions.
“That’s, of course, a matter for the UN to decide about how it’s going to enforce its decision,” Assange said, “and a matter for Sweden and the UK to think do they really want to go down that path.”
But Britain’s top diplomat indicated yesterday that nothing had changed for the Australian national.
“Assange is a fugitive from justice, voluntarily hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy,” UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond tweeted. “I reject the report from #UNWGAD.”
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention characterised its ruling as a “moral recommendation.” The group concedes it is up to member states to act on its decisions, explaining it can only investigate and “recommend remedies such as release from detention and compensation.”
Attorney Melinda Taylor, who led Assange’s case before the UN panel, called the ruling “a damning indictment of the manner in which this case has been handled (and) affirms that Assange is a victim of a significant miscarriage of justice.”
“Now finally with today’s decision,” Taylor said, “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Yet regardless of what the UN panel said, the WikiLeaks founder remains in legal trouble.
WikiLeaks rose to fame posting confidential items such as the US military manual on handling prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, documents from the Church of Scientology, emails from Sarah Palin and pager messages in New York from 9/11.
But the website really gained attention in 2010, publishing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents related to US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Also in 2010, Sweden revealed Assange was wanted there over a sex crime allegation. Stockholm police questioned him that August and told him about the charges, which he dismissed as part of a smear campaign. Four months later, he turned himself into police in London.
According to Assange, he hasn’t been free since.
He was released, with celebrity supporters helping pay his bail and giving him a mansion to live in under house arrest. Still, Sweden fought to have him extradited from the UK.
On June 19, 2012, Assange fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy to escape both British and Swedish authorities.
Ecuador granted him political asylum and, as with other diplomatic missions around the world, its embassy is considered sovereign territory. Assange couldn’t be arrested as long as he stayed inside the embassy.
But British authorities were waiting for him outside.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said yesterday that Assange is still subject to a European Arrest Warrant “so the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden.”
Sweden still wants him back. It also rejected the U.N. panel’s judgment, asserting that Assange wasn’t forced to go to the Ecuadorian Embassy — he went there “voluntarily … and Swedish authorities have no control over his decision to stay there.”
“Mr. Assange is free to leave the embassy at any point,” the Swedish government said. “Thus, he is not being deprived of his liberty there due to any decision or action taken by the Swedish authorities.”
Yet facing justice in Sweden is just one of Assange’s concerns. A bigger one may be whether Sweden might extradite him to the United States, where he could theoretically be sentenced to the death penalty if he is convicted of publishing government secrets.
Yesterday, Assange’s legal team reiterated its fear he’ll be moved to the United States. It cast him as a champion of transparency and democracy as well as an unfair, shameful target of Western governments.
“For years, Julian and WikiLeaks fought to expose abuses committed by governments and violations of rights and victims everywhere,” said Taylor, Assange’s attorney.
“It is now completely unfair that Julian himself has become a victim due to his whistleblowing activities and as a result has suffered uncharged indefinite detention for over five years.” — CNN/The Guardian/Herald Reporter.