NEW: Ecuador's foreign minister congratulates Julian Assange, cites concern about his health
U.N. panel says Sweden, UK have "arbitrarily detained" Assange
Facing rape accusation in Sweden, he got asylum in Ecuador Embassy in London in 2012
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange declared victory Friday, expressing vindication over a U.N. panel’s judgment that the Swedish and UK governments have “arbitrarily detained” him since 2010.
But does this decision mean Assange will become a free man? Or that anything about his status has changed?
Not if you ask Sweden and the United Kingdom. And Assange doesn’t appear ready to test them, remaining at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he first sought refuge in 2012.
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 Friday via video, Assange called the decision “legally binding.”
He warned that failure to act on the ruling would undermine “the U.N. 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 U.N. 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.”
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 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.”
And Britain’s top diplomat indicated Friday that nothing has 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.”
Focus of authorities for years
Attorney Melinda Taylor, who led Assange’s case before the U.N. panel, called the ruling “a damning indictment of the manner in which this case has been handled (and) affirms that Mr. 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 U.N. panel said, the WikiLeaks founder remains in legal trouble.
WikiLeaks rose to fame posting confidential items such as the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Fears possible extradition to U.S.
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 Friday 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 charged and convicted of publishing government secrets.
On Friday, 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.”
Ecuador sticking by Assange
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, called Assange on Friday to congratulate him on the U.N. judgment and slammed his British counterparts. He told CNN en Español that UK authorities should now let Assange travel on to Ecuador.
Patino also expressed concerns about the Australian’s health issues, which his attorneys say have been exacerbated by the inability to get outside medical care.
“We are not even sure what’s the problem because he needs tests to be done,” Patino said. “The UK refuses to allow him to go to a hospital.”
Addressing supporters later Friday from the embassy’s balcony, Assange reveled in what he called a “sweet … victory that cannot be denied.” But his triumph may be of limited value since he still remains in the embassy.
“It doesn’t come as a shock to see the type of injustice that you’ve been in the business of exposing be inflicted on yourself. That’s part of my work,” he said. “I am tough and hardened by this process. And I can take it.
“However, what right does this government, or the U.S. government or the Swedish government have to deny my children their father for 5½ years?”
CNN’s Don Melvin, Josh Berlinger, Jack Maddox, Salma Abdelaziz and Pierre Meilhan contributed to this report.