The more than three-year-long impasse over WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange lodged in the Ecuadorean embassy here continued after a series of developments, including a UN panel ruling in his favour, Britain rejecting it and a widely publicised news conference by him on Friday.
Assange, 44, continues to face arrest if he steps out of the embassy in central London, Britain insisted, as it is obliged to execute a European Arrest Warrant on behalf of Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault.
After the UN working group on arbitrary detention panel said Assange had been a victim of “arbitrary detention”, Twitter erupted with cryptic comments from people about being “detained” in coffee shops for 19 minutes, or in departmental store queues for some time.
The Guardian called it all a “publicity stunt” by Assange, and said: “WikiLeaks made its name by exposing those who ignored the rule of law. Its editor-in-chief should recognise that applies to him as well as the US government.”
As a large number of international journalists gathered outside the embassy, Assange’s aides made presentations at a news conference before his statement via Skype. He did not take questions but claimed Britain is bound to follow the UN panel’s findings.
Foreign secretary Philip Hammond said the UN panel’s opinion was “ridiculous” and called Assange a “fugitive from justice”. He said Assange can come out “any time he chooses” but will still have to face justice in Sweden.
The Foreign Office said: “This (the UN panel’s ruling) changes nothing. We completely reject any claim that Julian Assange is a victim of arbitrary detention. The UK has already made clear to the UN that we will formally contest the working group’s opinion.
“Julian Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK. The opinion of the UN Working Group ignores the facts and the well-recognised protections of the British legal system. He is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy.”
It added: “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. As the UK is not a party to the Caracas Convention, we do not recognise ‘diplomatic asylum’.”
Scotland Yard reiterated that it will make “every effort” to arrest Assange should he leave the embassy.
After exhausting legal avenues in Britain to prevent extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault, Assange was given asylum by Ecuador in 2012 and has since lived in the country’s embassy.