Tuesday, May 24

Julian Assange: sweet victory soured by British and Swedish rejection



A UN panel may have found that Julian Assange is subject to “arbitrary detention” and called for him to be allowed to walk free, but the WikiLeaks founder still remains exactly where he has been for the past 44 months – inside Ecuador’s London embassy and locked in a three-nation war of words.

Britain and Sweden immediately rejected the UN report, which found that Assange had been “arbitrarily detained” since his arrest in 2010 and during his lengthy stay in the embassy, where he sought asylum in June 2012.

The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, described the findings as “ridiculous” and the Australian as a “fugitive from justice”.

However, the panel’s findings, leaked on Thursday and published in full on Friday morning, were a welcome victory for Assange, and a moment he intended to savour fully.

At 4.01pm he emerged on to the balcony of the west London embassy to greet a crowd of several hundred supporters and journalists, pausing first, just briefly, to glance at the sky he has rarely seen for more than three years.

“How sweet it is,” said Assange, holding aloft a copy of the UN report while supporters shouted: “We love you, Julian!” It had been, he said, “a victory of historical importance”, and a decision reached after a process to which both Britain and Sweden had made submissions. “They lost. UK lost; Sweden lost.”

Meanwhile, for Ecuador – the Australian’s (mostly) willing host – the findings meant it was time for the two countries to allow Assange to walk free, and to compensate both him and them for the lengthy period he has been holed up in one of its few rooms.

The Swedish government, however, has insisted the report changes nothing, and that it cannot interfere in an independent prosecutor’s ongoing attempt to extradite Assange for questioning over an allegation of rape dating from 2010, which he denies.

At times, Assange was in magnanimous mood. Having initially accused Hammond of insulting the UN with comments that were “beneath the stature that a foreign minister should express in this situation”, he later described him as a “perfectly nice person” whose comments were “merely rhetoric”. Britain hadn’t appealed against the findings of the UN working group on arbitrary detention, he said, “because they knew they would lose”.

But there were dark warnings for those he said were responsible for “depriv[ing] my children of their father for five and a half years”.

“A lot of people have very long memories about the parties that have committed injustices in this case. Inevitably, those people will face the consequences of their actions.”

Only a single, persistent heckler interrupted the mood. “Can someone close that person up?” asked Assange. Shouts of “Yes!” came in response.

After exhausting all his legal options in the UK and Sweden some time ago, there is no question that the report represents a windfall for Assange’s legal team.

Reaching their conclusion by a three-to-one majority after a fifth member recused herself, the panel called on the Swedish and British authorities to end Assange’s “deprivation of liberty”, respect his physical integrity and freedom of movement, and offer him compensation.

Assange, they found, had been unable “to access the full-intended benefit” of the asylum status granted by Ecuador, and “the continuing and disproportionate denial to him of such access … had become cumulatively harsh and disproportionate”.

In particular, the panel offered an excoriating critique of Sweden’s prosecution process, which they said had been in a state of “indefinite procrastination”. With Quito and Stockholm still unable to agree arrangements to allow Swedish prosecutors access to the London embassy, Assange has yet to be interviewed over the alleged offences. Britain said on Thursday it was “deeply frustrated” by the deadlock.

But for all Assange’s jubilation, he remains in the embassy, the extradition warrant still stands, and Britain and Sweden remain adamant that the report changes nothing.

Assange also remains fearful of a potential future extradition to the US, where a secret grand jury has been looking into whether to prosecute him over Wikileaks’ publishing activities.

British lawyers lined up on Friday to dismiss the panel’s findings, with Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general in 2012 when Assange entered the embassy, calling it “an extraordinary document” and “very far-fetched”.

Ken Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, described the findings as “beyond parody”.

“Julian Assange is wanted in connection with a grave sexual offence in a country that has a fair trial justice system consistent with the highest international standards. Instead of cooperating with the Swedish authorities, as he should have done, Mr Assange has chosen to hole up in a foreign embassy, deliberately frustrating a serious criminal investigation. To describe his situation as ‘arbitrary detention’ is ludicrous.”

Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the lawyer for the Swedish woman whom Assange is accused of raping, said the UN panel had “a lack of understanding” that rape “is one of the most serious abuses and violations of human rights”.

It was “insulting and offensive”, she said, to her client to suggest a rape suspect should be compensated for withholding himself from justice for more than five years.

But the former chair of the UN working group, Mads Andenas, defended its finding, saying: “There is no doubt that the normal course of action for the Swedish authorities would have been to interview Assange in London. The extradition request was disproportionate.”

So what happens next in the extraordinary, seemingly irresolveable drama of Julian Assange? At a press conference earlier in the day, one of his lawyers, Melinda Taylor, said that if Sweden and Britain were not prepared to act, Assange might consider applying again to the Swedish courts, “to see how they will enforce or apply the findings of the working group”.

The European court of human rights was another option, she said, although the Strasbourg court confirmed on Friday that an application lodged by Assange in November against the UK and Sweden had been declared inadmissible the following month.

Speaking on the balcony, Assange dropped heavy hints about breaches of the convention against torture. “If this illegal, immoral, unethical detention continues, there will be criminal consequences for the parties involved.”