Julian Assange, facing arrest, calls UN ruling 'vindication'

The WikiLeaks founder must still decide whether to walk out of his London refuge and into the hands of the police.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in London's Ecuadorian embassy in 2012.

Splash News/Corbis

More than 1,300 days into his controversial residency at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange said that a new United Nations ruling "brought a smile to my face."

Friday's ruling that Assange has been "arbitrarily detained" would seem to give the WikiLeaks founder the legal backing to leave the building without fearing arrest. He entered the embassy in June 2012 after claiming asylum to avoid arrest and extradition to Sweden where he faces charges of sexual misconduct. Assange also has feared that travel to Sweden would be a prelude to getting sent to the US, where he could be prosecuted in a case involving the leak of classified government documents.

The UK government, however, said that it disagrees with the UN ruling and that Assange would still be arrested.

Assange didn't comment on whether he would walk out of his refuge.

"I consider the outcome in this case to be vindication," the 44-year-old Australian told journalists Friday via a video webcast. "It is now the task of the United Kingdom and Sweden to implement the verdict."

Following the press conference, Assange appeared at a balcony of the embassy to address a throng of press and a handful of supporters waving banners. Thanking his supporters and legal team, he described himself as "hardened by this process." He demanded, "What right does this government, or the US government, or the Swedish government have to deny my children their father for five and a half years without any charges in any country?"

He went on to warn of "criminal consequences" for the parties involved in what he described as his "illegal, immoral, unethical detention." Assange then ducked back inside the embassy, declining to answer questions from journalists on the subject of the sexual assault allegations against him.

Watch this: Assange backed by UN, but he's not free yet

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) said that Assange, having endured "deprivation of liberty" without due legal process, was entitled to both freedom of movement and to compensation for his time in exile. The period of detention, according to the tribunal, began more than a year and a half before Assange entered the embassy, with a 10-day incarceration in the UK's Wandsworth Prison and 550 days of house arrest.

Assange's legal team described the ruling as a "resounding victory."

The press conference had brought the Assange team to London's Frontline Club, a members' club for journalists and media professionals. Decorated with images of investigative and combat journalism -- including items that have stopped bullets to save the lives of reporters -- the Frontline is owned by Assange's friend and advocate Vaughan Smith. (A replay of the conference is available on YouTube.)

The UN ruling is the latest twist in the long-running saga for Assange, who rose to prominence when WikiLeaks published thousands of classified government documents relating to the Iraq War, a source of embarrassment for the US.

Wanted for questioning by Swedish prosecutors over sexual assault allegations, Assange is threatened with arrest if he steps outside the small embassy building in London's fancy Knightsbridge area. In the embassy he has been confined to a converted office with a bed, shower, treadmill and sunlamp.

The British government maintains that Assange has been in self-imposed exile in the embassy, avoiding lawful arrest after his extradition case went through the British legal system.

"This changes nothing," a UK government spokesperson said following the UN ruling, which carries no formal authority over Britain or Sweden. "An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European Arrest Warrant in place, so the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden."

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower, who resides in Russia to escape prosecution in the US, slammed Britain's decision in a tweet. He said it "writes a pass for every dictatorship to reject UN rulings" and sets a dangerous precedent.

Assange echoed the sentiment, warning that his arrest in the face of the UN ruling would weaken international human rights efforts and would affect the standing of the UK and Sweden in the international community. "Do they really want to go down that path?" he asked.