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“A Significant Victory”: Julian Assange Hails U.N. Panel Calling for His Freedom

StoryFebruary 05, 2016
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A United Nations panel has officially concluded WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been “arbitrarily detained” and should be allowed to walk free. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for more than three years. He wants to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crimes allegations, which he has repeatedly denied and for which he has never been charged. He fears Sweden would extradite him to the United States, where he could face trial for WikiLeaks’ revelations. We air reaction to the U.N. decision from Assange and his attorney, Melinda Taylor, and speak with Mads Andenæs, U.N. special rapporteur on arbitrary detention.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A United Nations panel has officially concluded WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been “arbitrarily detained” and should be allowed to walk free. Assange has been holed up in Ecuadorean Embassy in London for more than three years. He wants to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crimes allegations, which he has repeatedly denied and for which he has never been charged. He fears Sweden would extradite him to the United States, where he could face trial for WikiLeaks’ revelations.

AMY GOODMAN: Seong-Phil Hong, the rapporteur of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, spoke this morning.

SEONG-PHIL HONG: The working group maintains the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end. And his physical integrity and his freedom of movement should be respected. And finally, if necessary, he should be entitled to an enforceable right to remedy—for example, compensation.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. panel’s judgment is not legally binding. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond dismissed it as “ridiculous.”

PHILIP HAMMOND: Well, I reject the finding of this working group. It’s a group made up of laypeople, not lawyers, and they are—their conclusion is flawed in law. Julian Assange is a fugitive from justice. He’s hiding from justice in the Ecuadorean Embassy. He can come out onto the pavement any time he chooses. He’s not being detained by us. But he will have to face justice in Sweden, if he chooses to do so. And it’s right that he should not be able to escape justice. This is a—frankly, a ridiculous finding by the working group, and we reject it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: At a press conference at the Frontline Club in London this morning, Julian Assange’s attorney, Melinda Taylor, discussed the significance of the ruling.

MELINDA TAYLOR: So, finally, we have the verdict of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. And they issued a very detailed opinion, which considers all arguments from Sweden and the United Kingdom. And this decision dispels the myth that Mr. Assange is either a fugitive from justice or that he could just walk out of the embassy. It is a damning indictment of the manner in which this case has been handled. It further affirms that Mr. Assange is a victim of a significant miscarriage of justice that is attributable to the action and inaction of both Sweden and the United Kingdom. It further emphasized Julian’s continued willingness to cooperate with the investigations in this case at all stages of the procedure.

Now, today I’m going to first address why we brought a complaint before the United Nations working group and, secondly, what are the findings of this working group. In terms of why we brought the complaint, there are two main reasons. First, he is and has been detained now for five years, one month and 29 days. And to put it bluntly, that’s a hell of a long time to detain someone, someone who has never been charged and has never even been questioned by the Swedish authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Assange also responded to the ruling just before our broadcast today. He spoke at that news conference at the Frontline Club in London via video stream from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

JULIAN ASSANGE: Well, I’ve been detained now without charge in this country, the United Kingdom, for five-and-a-half years. That’s five-and-a-half years where I’ve had great difficulty seeing my family and seeing my children. Today that detention without charge has been found by the highest organization in the United Nations—that is, has the jurisdiction for considering the rights of detained persons—to be unlawful.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Julian Assange speaking just minutes before we went to broadcast through a video stream at the Frontline Club. He’s been holed up at the embassy in—the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for three-and-a-half years, where he got political asylum.

Joining us now is Mads Andenæs. He is the former U.N. special rapporteur on arbitrary detention and the chair of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He’s a professor at the University of Oslo and a visiting professor at All Souls College in Oxford. And that’s where we’re speaking to him right now.

Mads Andenæs, thanks so much for joining us. Can you explain the ruling of the U.N. committee?

MADS ANDENÆS: So, the U.N. committee holds that this is a violation of the prohibition against arbitrary detention. Mr. Assange has been deprived of his liberty for a five-year—more than a five-year period. He was initially arrested and detained in isolation. The isolation was completely groundless. He was afterwards in house arrest under, again, very strict restrictions. He was then threatened with actually being extradited to Sweden. And you’ve spoken about the consequences of that. And that would negate his basic human rights. He had no other choice than to go and seek refuge, and he did that in the Ecuadorean Embassy. That was not his choice. That was not his volition. It was the only way he could uphold his own rights in this situation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mads Andenæs, I wanted to ask you—The Guardian newspaper had an editorial basically not backing—not backing Julian Assange, and saying that the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, that this latest opinion, is simply wrong. It says, “He is not being detained arbitrarily. Three-and-a-half years ago, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in order to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sex offences. … 'Arbitrary' detention,” The Guardian says, “means that due legal process has not been observed. It has. This is a publicity stunt.” What do you say to that?

MADS ANDENÆS: Well, first of all, due process has not been upheld, and that’s what the U.N. working group very clearly shows—a series of procedural mistakes on the Swedish side, no proportionality review on the U.K. side. And the alternatives here—there were alternatives. Under the European Arrest Warrant system, he could have been interviewed, interrogated in England, in London. That’s how we normally do these things in Europe. In these kind of cases, Swedish officers could have traveled to the U.K. He would—Mr. Assange would have been interviewed in an English police station. That’s how we usually do it, and it wasn’t done here. It was a highly irregular procedure. This was nothing like due process. And it is obvious to the U.N. group and, after this ruling, obvious that this did not serve the purposes of the case, the way it was explained. This was to achieve other aims and illegitimate aims. And it was clearly not a part of a due process.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Julian Assange speaking this morning after the U.N. ruling became public.

JULIAN ASSANGE: It is now the task of the states of Sweden and the United Kingdom, as a whole, to implement the verdict. Now, while there can be attempts for the media, for the popular press, to look tough and attempt to undermine that, a serious attempt, not just for show, would have the effect of undermining the U.N. system. And there are consequences of doing that. And Sweden and the U.K. know full well that there are consequences. Those consequences include not merely weakening a human rights and international law instrument to which both countries have signed binding treaties, but rather it will have the diplomatic effect—and diplomats know it. The diplomatic effect will be to make life difficult for Sweden and the United Kingdom to be treated seriously as international players that obey their international legal obligations.

Their attempts, if they proceed to undermine the U.N. system, will see various enforcement measures that can be taken by the U.N. Those, initially, of course, can include their removal from U.N. committees, the movement against those states in various voting processes, and, ultimately, up to and including sanctions. Now that’s, of course, a matter for the U.N. to decide about how it’s going to enforce its decisions, and a matter for Sweden and the U.K. to think, do they really want to go down that path?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Julian Assange speaking at the news conference today, albeit by video stream because he is in the Ecuadorean Embassy. If he steps foot outside, he’ll be arrested by British authorities. We’re talking to the former U.N. rapporteur on arbitrary detention, Mads Andenæs. I was watching CNN this morning, and a reporter was standing outside the Ecuadorean Embassy and saying, “Despite Sweden’s efforts to question Julian Assange in the embassy, Ecuador has prevented them from doing this.” This was exactly the opposite. This was not true, what the reporter said. Ecuador has said that the Swedish authorities could come in. Even a court in Sweden has reprimanded the prosecutor for not questioning Julian Assange. Mads Andenæs, can you say what happens from here?

MADS ANDENÆS: Well, it’s now for the U.K. and the Swedish authorities to find some way of abiding by this opinion. This U.N. body is the only body or the one U.N. body dealing with arbitrary detention. And they come with this very clear ruling. Sweden and the U.K. are bound by the U.N. Convention on Civil and Political Rights. And it’s now for them to find a way of complying.

And what you mentioned there is part of the substance of the case. There are, of course, lesser—much lesser measures, less intrusive measures that could have been chosen. For instance, they could have interviewed him in the U.K. And it’s not true that Assange has not offered that, as far as I—well, I think it’s absolutely clear, although you have this reporter that you just mentioned. To the contrary, it’s absolutely clear that Assange and his team has offered to answer—that he should offer—he had offered to answer questions by Swedish police in the U.K. That’s beyond dispute. And that offer has not been taken up. And as you mentioned, Swedish courts have been very critical of the prosecutor, of the Swedish prosecutor, for this. And if you read those judgments closely—they’re in Swedish, of course—you will see that it is as strong a criticism as you can expect possible from a Swedish court against the way that the prosecutors have proceeded here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mads Andenæs, we only have about 30 seconds or so, but your sense of how public opinion, both in Britain and in Sweden, is in respect to how their governments are dealing with the Julian Assange case?

MADS ANDENÆS: Well, it’s split. It’s split. But no country likes to get a ruling for arbitrary detention, to be censured by the U.N. like this. But if you don’t abide by it, you fall into the category of countries we don’t like to compare ourselves with, who do not abide by these rulings. And it’s very important for the international human rights systems that countries like the U.K. and Sweden do actually go for—show a good example and do follow these rulings, because, in the end, they are bound by the conventions. And there’s no more authority body to interpret and apply the Convention on Arbitrary Detention than this working group, which is established by the U.N. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Mads Andenæs, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you so much for being with us. He is the former U.N. special rapporteur on arbitrary detention and chair of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, now professor at University of Oslo, a visiting professor at All Souls College in Oxford, where we just spoke to him.

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