U.N. Panel Rules Julian Assange Is Being Arbitrarily Detained

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A U.N. panel ruled that Julian Assange has been arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. The United Kingdom says that's nonsense and points out the WikiLeaks founder is free to leave his embassy refuge at any time.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is calling on the U.K. and Sweden to stop trying to arrest him. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than three years. He's been trying to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning over an alleged rape. He denies any events took place. Today, a U.N. panel weighed in on his case. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: A U.N. panel ruled that Sweden and the U.K. have arbitrarily detained Julian Assange since 2010. That's when accusations of rape and sexual molestation in Sweden led to his arrest in London. He lost an appeal to stop his extradition to Sweden and sought asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. One of his lawyers, Melinda Taylor, called the decision a victory and said Assange has been detained for over five years without charge.

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MELINDA TAYLOR: 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.

FADEL: The U.N. panel called on the U.K. and Sweden to give Assange freedom of movement and to compensate him. But the panel's decision was met with swift dismissals from both the Swedish and British governments. Women's rights groups in Sweden criticized the decision, accusing the U.N. panel of valuing the rights of a possible sex offender over the rights of women who've been assaulted or raped. Back in London, Julian Assange stood on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, held up a copy of the panel's ruling and spoke to the crowd of journalists and supporters below.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN ASSANGE: How sweet it is. This is a victory that cannot be denied. It is a victory of historical importance, not just for me, for my family, for my children, but for the independence of the U.N. system.

FADEL: The ruling, he says, is legally binding. But the U.K. and Sweden say it is not. Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called the panel's decision ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHILIP HAMMOND: Julian Assange is a fugitive from justice. He's hiding from justice in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He can come out onto the pavement any time he chooses. He's not being detained by us.

FADEL: But if he does emerge, the British government says it's under a legal obligation to arrest him and to extradite him to Sweden. Assange and his lawyers depict this case as political. The Australian computer hacker angered the U.S. government by releasing thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010. Assange claims that if he's taken to Sweden for questioning, he might then be expedited to the United States for possible prosecution, although there are no formal charges against Assange in the U.S. at the moment. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.