WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says he is still determined to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London, despite ongoing resistance from the UK and Sweden. Assange, who is wanted for questioning in Sweden in connection with an accusation of rape, said in an interview with The Verge this week that "there must be consequences paid" for his detention at the embassy, after a UN panel of legal experts ruled in his favor.
Earlier this month, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) ruled that Assange has been "arbitrarily detained" at the embassy, where he's been living since 2012, and called for his release. British and Swedish authorities have rejected the panel's findings, characterizing Assange as a fugitive and vowing to arrest him if he sets foot outside of the embassy. Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, described the WGAD decision as "ridiculous."
The panel's ruling is not legally binding, though it could pressure Britain and Sweden to change course. After the decision was issued, Assange described the decision as a "victory of historical importance" and called on the UK and Sweden to recognize it.
"It's an illegal situation that cannot continue."
"It's an illegal situation that cannot continue," Assange, an Australian national, said by phone this week. "I have adapted to it, but it is very harsh for my children and for my family. And I will never forget the injustice that has been inflicted on them, and there must be consequences paid for that."
Swedish prosecutors have sought to question Assange in relation to sexual assault and rape allegations made against him in 2010. The statute of limitations on the sexual assault claims has since expired, but the rape investigation remains open. (Assange has not been formally charged with any crimes.) Assange and his lawyers have dismissed the allegations as a pretext for Sweden to extradite him to the US, where he could face criminal charges related to the diplomatic cables and classified material that WikiLeaks began publishing in 2010.
In its ruling, the WGAD determined that Assange had been deprived of fundamental liberties during his 550-day house arrest, though the decision was not unanimous. A Ukrainian member of the five-person panel determined that Assange was not being arbitrarily detained — a view shared by some independent experts — while an Australian member abstained from the vote because of her shared nationality with Assange. The majority opinion criticized the Swedish investigation, characterizing it as a form of "indefinite procrastination." In addition to calling for Assange's release, the panel said the UK and Sweden should pay him compensation for his detainment. This week, UN human rights expert Alfred de Zayas urged Sweden and UK to accept and implement the ruling, "even if they do not agree with the conclusions of UN experts."
"It threatens the lives of the most vulnerable people."
Mads Andenas, a law professor and former chair of the WGAD, says he wasn't surprised by the Assange decision, describing it as "thoroughly predictable." (Andenas stepped down from the WGAD in July 2015, and did not participate in the final ruling.) He says the WGAD has played an instrumental role in securing the release of wrongly detained prisoners around the globe, and he fears that the UK's "over the top" reaction to the Assange decision could undermine the working group's credibility going forward.
"The problem is now, that some governments will say, ‘if the UK ministers can be so critical, why should we follow, or take any note of the opinions of the working group?'" says Andenas. "So in that sense, the statements by the [UK] foreign secretary threatens lives, and it's very, very serious. It threatens the lives of the most vulnerable people who are in detention in dictatorial regimes, where the working group provides the only remedy the have."
Following the decision, Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny said she will file a new request to interview Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy, after reaching a bilateral agreement with Ecuador in December. Prosecutors had previously insisted that Assange come to Sweden for questioning, but have since said they would be open to questioning him in London. Speaking by phone on Tuesday, Assange said he sees the move as a direct response to the WGAD ruling, though he remains skeptical as to whether anything will come of it.
"We haven't received anything, and they've played these kinds of media games for years now," Assange said. "Until we see something concrete, I presume it's just for the press."