Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has told the world he’s been ‘vindicated’ by a United Nations report calling for his immediate release during a rare media appearance.
Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, seeking asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault. While no formal charges have been brought against him, Assange fears that if sent to Sweden for questioning he would subsequently be extradited to the US to face espionage charges over his organisation’s release of top secret military documents.
Prior to the ruling of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that Assange was being “deprived of liberty”, the Australian had promised that if the panel decided against him he would voluntarily walk out of the embassy and into the arms of the British police.
However, as the panel has a track record of siding with the detainee in 99 per cent of prior cases, this promise has been seen by many as a stunt.
Speaking by video link in London on Friday a jubilant Assange claimed that the UN report is a legal victory over the besieging UK authorities. “Today that detention without charge has been found to be unlawful.” he said. “I consider the outcome a vindication.”
Addressing the media from an embassy balcony later that day, Assange said: “How sweet it is. A victory that cannot be denied.”
During a 10-minute speech made while brandishing a copy of the UN ruling, he blasted his critics and said he was “tough enough” to withstand longer confinement in the embassy.
Responding to UN guidance that he should receive compensation for his extended detention, Assange said that he believed the UK and Sweden could become subject to penalties “up to and including sanctions.”
Ecuador’s President Rafeal Correa also demanded compensation.
“Who is going to compensate the harm that has been done to Julian Assange and to Ecuador?” he asked. “Do you know how much it costs to maintain security at the embassy?”
Opponents of the UN decision widely claimed that Assange’s situation should not be deemed a detention as he could choose to end it at any time by surrendering to the legal process.
Prominent international lawyer Philippe Sands dubbed the report “poorly reasoned and unresponsive” while political commentator Joshua Rozenberg questioned how the UN could get it so wrong.
Meanwhile the UK has vowed to mount a legal challenge to the ruling and maintains that it has an obligation to uphold a European arrest warrant and extradite Assange to Sweden.
In a statement to the press, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond categorically rejected the UN findings, describing them on Friday as “flawed in law”, saying that they don’t change a thing.
“Julian Assange is a fugitive from justice. He is hiding from justice in the Ecuadorian embassy, and can come out onto the pavement any time he chooses.” he said.
A ‘convenient ruse’ back home
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met with Assange’s legal team in London on Friday, stating “I have now read the report and I am seeking legal advice on its implications for Mr Assange as an Australian citizen.”
Ms Bishop said she was keeping a “watching brief” on developments, but also claimed Mr Assange had not sought consular assistance from Australia for years.
In response, key Assange advisor barrister Greg Barns told The New Daily on Friday that Ms Bishop’s statement was “a convenient ruse to distance herself from the issue”, claiming “there have certainly been letters exchanged between Assange’s lawyers and Foreign Affairs ministers and the Australian High Commission regularly makes calls to the Ecuadorian embassy”.
Accusing the government of “capital H hypocrisy”, Barns said “Julie bishop has been banging on about the importance of UN led initiatives to get peace in Syria and in the very same week we have her saying: ‘Oh who cares what a UN commission says about Julian Assange?’”
According to Barns, the Australian government is “cherry picking” decisions in international law, “supporting Australian passport holders detained in Indonesia when there have been rulings in their favour” yet in the case of Assange “ignoring a UN decision regarding one of our own citizens.”
“The difficulty with international law,” he said, “is that there is no effective enforcement mechanism. Australia is very keen on international trade agreements being complied with to the letter of the law and takes action against other countries who don’t comply with them. Yet when it comes to the human rights of individuals Australia is selective.”