It’s been more than three years since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange felt able to safely appear in public. So he can be forgiven for celebrating his first taste of freedom – no matter how tiny.
On Friday, the journalist and publisher took to the small balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he’s claimed political asylum since 2012, to praise the United Nations for deciding he’s been unlawfully detained, with a cry of “How sweet it is!”
“This is a victory that cannot be denied,” Assange added to the swelled ranks of reporters gathered underneath. “It is a victory of historical importance.”
Yet the U.N. finding wasn’t universally welcomed. In a tweet, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described Assange as a “fugitive from justice, voluntarily hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy”.
Speaking on British TV, Hammond later called the U.N.’s decision “flawed” and “ridiculous”, before adding, “He’s hiding from justice in the Ecuadorian embassy. He can come out onto the pavement any time he chooses. He is not being detained by us.”
The 44-year-old Australian was originally arrested in London in 2010 under a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden over rape and sexual assault allegations.
Fearing that a Swedish court case would ultimately lead to his extradition to the United States for allegedly helping Chelsea Manning leak government secrets, he claimed asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy two years later while on bail.
Assange has since lived a monkish existence without access to exercise facilities or an outdoor environment. Until October, he was under round-the-clock police guard, 365 days a year. Even stepping onto the tiny balcony – as he did today – would have risked arrest.
Following 16 months of litigation, however, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention today ruled this detention unlawful, adding that Assange is “entitled to his freedom of movement and to compensation”.
The big question now is whether the U.K. government will abide by the ruling and allow him to walk free. “You can’t uphold the law by breaking the law,” argues his legal council Jennifer Robinson.
That is all in the future. Today, for Assange, was all about celebrating – and stepping into daylight for the first time in over three years.
“I have been detained now without charge in this country, the United Kingdom, for five-and-a-half-years,” Assange said to reporters via video link on Friday.
“That’s five-and-a-half-years where I have had great difficulty seeing my family and seeing my children.
“There has been a final decision,” he continued. “There is no ability to appeal the decision of the United Nations. The lawfulness of my detention or otherwise is now a matter of settled law.”
Assange added: “Put simply: those argument’s lost. There is no appeal. The time for appeal is over.”