UN rules for in favor of Julian Assange, but will he go free?

A United Nations panel ruled that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be free to leave Ecuador's London embassy where he has sought refuge from arrest and extradition.

Frank Augstein/AP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on a screen as he addresses the media from the London embassy of Ecuador Friday, where he has been holed up for some 3½ years to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning about alleged sexual offenses. A U.N. human rights panel says Assange has been "arbitrarily detained" by Britain.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be allowed to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy in Britain without fear of arrest, the United Nations ruled Friday, but the British government says otherwise.

The British still say Julian Assange is a wanted man who they have every right to arrest on sight regardless of what the UN says, The Washington Post reported. Both Sweden and the United States have legal grievances against him – one for rape and the other for espionage due to his leak of classified information – although Sweden has been more tenacious in its desire to try and punish Assange.

"This changes nothing," the UK Foreign Office said in a statement, according to the Post. "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."

Assange said Thursday he would end his almost four-year standoff with British authorities by leaving the Ecuadorian embassy at noon on Friday, according to USA Today.

The opinion of the 5-judge UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is not legally binding for any sovereign nation, and countries regularly ignore inconvenient UN opinions, but it may look bad if the UK and Sweden – two generally ardent supporters of the UN – do so this blatantly. This is a moral victory for the Wikileaks cause, wrote Owen Bowcott for the Guardian.

"A clash between the moral authority of the United Nations and the stalled mechanism of the European extradition against Julian Assange is likely to provoke diplomatic anxiety inside Whitehall," Mr. Bowcott wrote. "Neither [the UK nor Sweden] will relish the prospect of having to answer to the UN’s human rights council about why they have failed to enforce the panel’s decision."

For its part, Sweden still intends to investigate the 2010 allegations of rape, although the statute of limitations for lesser charges of sexual misconduct expired in August. The government stated it has "no control" over Assange, and he can leave the embassy any time, the BBC reported.

Since the UN panel claimed their ruling that Assange had been "arbitrarily detained" in the Ecuadorian embassy and should be "compensated" for his losses based on international law, the democratic governments are in an awkward place – letting Assange go free will undermine the authority of the European court system, but ignoring the UN will lessen their moral authority when they want to enforce its rulings on nations with less stalwart democratic traditions.

The British people show no real signs of wanting to harbor the Wikileaks champion over Sweden's objections; many are frustrated with the resources devoted to police monitoring of the the Ecuadorian embassy. Some also have their own moral causes against him. Joan Smith, chairwoman of the Mayor of London's Violence Against Women and Girls Panel, called him "an increasingly seedy individual" who is playing the media to avoid legal charges by two reasonable governments.

"Assange’s latest wheeze – asking a UN panel to declare that he’s been ‘arbitrarily detained’ in the Ecuadorian embassy since 2012 – would be hilarious if there weren’t so many gullible people who will see it as a vindication of their hero’s desperate attempts to escape political persecution," she wrote in The Telegraph.

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