Julian Assange: UN decision dismissed as 'ridiculous'
Foreign Secretary calls WikiLeaks founder a 'fugitive from justice' and says ruling is flawed in law
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has dismissed as "ridiculous" the finding by a United Nations legal panel that Julian Assange has been arbitrarily detained.
The WikiLeaks founder, who faces extradition to Sweden over a rape claim that he denies, claimed asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012, while on bail.
After first receiving a complaint from Assange in 2014, the UN's working group on arbitrary detention ruled today that he should be allowed to walk free and be compensated for his "deprivation of liberty", as he has not been able to leave the building without facing arrest.
The finding is not legally binding, but was described by Assange as a "really significant victory that has brought a smile to my face".
The Foreign Office, however, said the report "changes nothing" and vowed to contest the working group's "opinion".
Saying the decision was flawed in law, the Foreign Secretary labelled Assange a "fugitive from justice" and said he could leave the embassy "any time he chooses".
He added: "He is not being detained by us, but he will have to face justice in Sweden if he chooses to do so and it is right that he should not be able to escape justice. This is frankly a ridiculous finding by the working group and we reject it."
The call for compensation is "particularly controversial" when there has been public outcry over the cost of policing Assange's confinement at the embassy, says Caroline Hawley, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent.
Nevertheless, Britain and Sweden are now in "an extremely awkward position" while Assange "has an important panel of UN legal experts on his side", she adds.
Julian Assange: UN panel 'rules in his favour'
A United Nations panel has ruled in favour of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the BBC reports.
"If right this is a pretty extraordinary win for Assange," tweeted BBC Newsnight editor Ian Katz.
The UN's working group on arbitrary detention has been deliberating on whether Assange's confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London amounts to illegal detention and is due to deliver its verdict on Friday.
Assange, who is wanted in connection with a rape case in Sweden, had announced he would hand himself in if the panel ruled against him.
"Should the UN announce that I have lost my case, I shall exit the embassy at noon to accept arrest by British police as there is no meaningful prospect of further appeal," he said in a statement.
"However, should I prevail and the state parties be found to have acted unlawfully, I expect the immediate return of my passport and the termination of further attempt to arrest me," he added.
The UN's finding won't be legally binding, The Guardian notes. "However, the decision may prove an important tool for pressuring the British and Swedish governments to allow Assange to leave."
The Foreign Office has issued a statement saying: "We have been consistently clear that Mr Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorian embassy."
It added that 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 Mr Assange to Sweden."
Assange has been living in the embassy for three years in order to avoid extradition to Sweden. The Ecuadorian government has granted him political asylum.
He stands accused of raping one woman and sexually assaulting another in 2010. Some of the claims have lapsed under the Swedish statute of limitations, but he is still wanted for questioning over the rape allegation.
Assange, who has not been charged, denies the claims and says he fears Sweden will extradite him to the US, where he could be charged with espionage over classified documents released by WikiLeaks.
Sweden to question Assange in Ecuador embassy
Ecuador has agreed to allow Julian Assange to be questioned by the Swedish authorities at its embassy in London.
The Wikileaks founder took refuge in the embassy three years ago to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual assault and has been granted political asylum by the Ecuadorian government.
Ecuador said the agreement between Quito and Stockholm will ease "judicial procedures such as the questioning of Mr Assange", the Daily Telegraph reports, adding:
"The agreement, without any doubt, is a tool that strengthens bilateral relations and facilitates, for example, the execution of such legal actions as the questioning of Mr Assange, isolated in the Ecuadorian embassy in London."
The 44-year-old political activist has repeatedly denied the sexual assault accusations but has refused to travel to Sweden to face the charges as he fears being extradited to the US over the activities of Wikileaks in 2010.
Britain has accused Ecuador of perverting the course of justice by allowing Mr Assange to remain in the embassy.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office told the BBC, "It is for the Swedish prosecutor to decide how they now proceed with the legal case."
It is unlikely that Assange will face questioning until the New Year, says the Telegraph, but friends claim it is a positive sign, pointing out he has been pressing to be interviewed for years.
Baltasar Garzon, co-ordinator of Mr Assange's international legal defence team, said:
"We are glad that Ecuador and Sweden have reached an agreement for judicial co-operation. The most important thing now is that it must provide the appropriate legal guarantees.
"Julian Assange's rights need to be respected by Sweden and the United Kingdom. These countries have failed to do so until now. Julian Assange's only demands are that his fundamental rights are acknowledged and respected, including the asylum granted to him by Ecuador."