LONDON — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called on Britain and others Friday to allow his freedom after a U.N. panel declared that he has been “arbitrarily detained” as he remains in diplomatic sanctuary to avoid arrest.
Assange, speaking by video link from his refuge inside the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, said he considered the declaration by the U.N. group to be a “significant” victory, but he gave no indication of whether he would attempt to end his more than three-year stay inside the diplomatic compound.
He urged authorities to abide by the decision and lift orders for his arrest and extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning on allegations including rape — charges that he strongly denies.
“It’s now the task of Sweden and Britain to implement the verdict” of the U.N. group, Assange said, calling the decision the “end of the road” for the arrest orders.
British and Swedish officials, however, rejected the ruling and said that Assange has not been detained and is free to leave the embassy whenever he wants. If he walks out, he faces arrest under a European Arrest Warrant and for skipping bail.
Hours earlier in Geneva, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Assange has been “arbitrarily detained” and urged Britain and Sweden to end his “deprivation of liberty.”
Assange is “entitled to his freedom of movement and to compensation,” said a statement from the panel.
Assange’s supporters fear that Sweden could hand him over to the United States to face possible charges over leaked documents, including hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables.
The U.N. panel has no legal standing, but its decisions often carry moral clout in international disputes.
“Having concluded that there was a continuous deprivation of liberty, the Working Group also found that the detention was arbitrary because he was held in isolation during the first stage of detention and because of the lack of diligence by the Swedish Prosecutor in its investigations, which resulted in the lengthy detention of Mr. Assange,” the panel’s statement said in explaining its determination. Early in his legal wrangles, Assange was briefly held in a British jail, at times in an isolation unit.
Assange’s lawyers called the declaration a “resounding victory” and urged his immediate release.
Wearing a dark suit, Assange told reporters that the findings of the panel were “now a matter of settled law.”
He described the comments of British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, who called the panel’s ruling “ridiculous,” as “insulting” to the United Nations.
Swedish prosecutors, meanwhile, said the ruling “has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law.”
“Mr. Assange is free to leave the embassy at any point. Thus, he is not being deprived of his liberty there due to any decision or action taken by the Swedish authorities,” the Swedish Foreign Ministry said in a letter to the panel.
The statement also said Sweden has not received an extradition request for Assange from U.S. authorities.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for the alleged Swedish rape victim, said in a statement to the BBC that the ruling was “insulting and offensive” to all crime victims. A man suspected of rape should not be awarded compensation after avoiding the judicial process, she said.
British authorities say that they will contest the ruling and that Assange still faces arrest if he leaves the diplomatic compound.
“The opinion of the U.N. Working Group ignores the facts and the well-recognized protections of the British legal system,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. “He is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy. An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European Arrest Warrant in place,” it continued.
Citing spiraling costs, London’s Metropolitan Police stopped their round-the-clock policing of the embassy last year, but they continue to monitor it covertly.
Late Friday afternoon, Assange stepped onto the embassy’s balcony to address his supporters and a phalanx of photographers and journalists gathered outside on a chilly winter day.
“If this illegal, immoral, unethical detention continues,” he said, brandishing a copy of the U.N. statement, “there will be criminal consequences.”
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.