There was a war of words between the British government and Julian Assange on Friday, with the former dismissing a UN panel’s opinion in his favour as “ridiculous” and the WikiLeaks founder calling it a “vindication” of his position in the prolonged impasse.
Prime Minister David Cameron, foreign secretary Philip Hammond and the Foreign Office were one in rejecting the opinion of the UN working group on arbitrary detention, which said Assange had been “deprived” of his liberty. He has lived in the Ecuadorean embassy since he was granted asylum in 2012.
Cameron’s spokesperson called the panel’s opinion “ridiculous”, while Hammond described Assange as a “fugitive from justice”. Assange called Britain’s response “insulting” to the UN and Hammond’s comments as beneath the dignity of a foreign secretary.
Assange, 44, continues to face arrest if he steps out of the Ecuadorean embassy in central London, as Britain said it is obliged to execute a European Arrest Warrant on behalf of Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault.
As the day’s developments unfolded, Twitter erupted with cryptic comments from people about being “detained” in coffee shops for minutes, or in departmental store queues for some time.
The Guardian called it a “publicity stunt”, 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 he appeared via Skype to make a statement. He did not take questions, but claimed Britain is obliged to follow the UN panel’s findings.
Hammond 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 said 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 the allegations of sexual assault, Assange was given asylum by Ecuador in 2012.