Friday 5 February 2016 will be remembered as an important milestone in the protracted prosecution of WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Julian Assange. Shortly after 8 a.m. the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention formally confirmed the outcome of their 16-month investigation into Assange’s detention, ruling that he has been arbitrarily detained for the entire length of his confinement within the UK (since 7 December 2010).
The adjudication process, fully participated in by the UK and Sweden, and currently uncontested by them, highlighted a lack of diligence by the Swedish Prosecutor and recommends that Sweden and UK “assess the situation of Mr. Assange to ensure his safety and physical integrity, to facilitate the exercise of his right to freedom of movement in an expedient manner, and to ensure the full enjoyment of his rights guaranteed by the international norms on detention.”
The UNWGAD decision is a damning indictment of Swedish and UK conduct thus far which re-positions the Assange case legally and politically, placing international pressure on both governments to end the detention with urgency. Sweden’s Prosecutor Marianne Ny at last under the spotlight it seems. More on the findings here.
Sweet Victory: Assange Vindication by UN. Summary & Resources. here
Members of the on-going solidarity vigil had previously called a gathering outside the Ecuadorian embassy for the day of the UNWGAD decision – short notice to organise and publicise, but a salient moment to show solidarity, boosted by the vindicating ruling of the UN. I reached Hans Crescent just after midday. There was a significant media presence entrenched in the usual vigil space (enthused it seemed by Assange’s stated intention to leave the embassy should the ruling go against him) and supporters had mostly relocated underneath the building’s balconied window. Familiar faces also took to the traffic-less street milling among the press, placards and handouts visible.
Ahead of the scheduled vigil start time a fillip was hearing the familiar, authoritative tones of Peter Tatchell, a consistent and passionate supporter of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, addressing an eager press pack. To the point as ever, Peter stressed the historical weight of the UN group’s rulings and their key assertion that Sweden’s failure to advance the case via formal charges is an improper course of action underpinning the arbitrary detention status in question.
An international gathering of press and supporters waited patiently amid rumours that Julian would give a balcony response to the UNWGAD decision. For regular vigilers, displaced by throngs of media – including some elements of the UK media cliques so disdainful in their reporting of Assange and his long-running confinement- it was important to hold position close to the embassy window and if necessary form an ad-hoc barrier from some of the more disreputable sections of the press. Incredibly, moving throw the crowd earlier, I had heard press mocking of a vigil roll-call of detained whistle-blowers, including Edward Snowden and journalist Barrett Brown.
Generally though, waiting media seemed very keen to get thoughts and quotes and for pics. We had arranged ourselves for a group shot outside the embassy and the media focus – large and very close – was actually pretty intense. Thankfully, calming music from familiar Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange action regulars was on hand: with songs of solidarity doing a great job of maintaining spirits and entertaining the throng for a couple of hours.
It became understood that Julian definitely would be speaking from the balcony at 4:01 p.m. (very precise!) and the press scrum, which appeared to have been dissipating slightly earlier, reformed with a vengeance. Again, quite an intense experience, but an opportunity to engage with people about the case and raise their awareness; sometimes welcomed, sometimes not!
“A Victory of historic importance”
Assange, looking very pale and managing an on-going cough, nevertheless spoke with familiar clarity and purpose. Initially thanking the Working Group, he set out the legal underpinnings of the determination and the UK’s and Sweden’s full participation in it. Referencing UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s ridiculous rhetorical bluff, Julian highlighted the expiry of a 2-week appeal window, unused by either government, and pointed to the lack of case for his detainers’ inactivity: “there are no grounds for appeal”, he stated.
With palpable anger Assange turned to the personal cost to his family, denied their father for 5-and-a-half years. Hinting at emerging future legal avenues under the Convention Against Torture he declared: “if this illegal, immoral, unethical detention continues, there will be criminal consequences for the parties involved.” Be afraid, Mrs. Ny. But notable also was the thanks given to supportive individuals within institutions of the states concerned with the case, suggesting an alliance of dissent and assistance to the Assange cause:
“There are good people in the UK Government. There are good people in the Foreign Office. There are good people in the British Police. There are good people in the Swedish Foreign Ministry. There are good people in the US State Department. There are even good people in the US military. It is partly due to these good people, and their on-going support, in a variety of ways, that has led to this victory. And these people are wise to understand that history is on their side, and I am very grateful for the assistance that they have given today.”
Encouraging and revealing, then, given WikiLeaks’ history of whistle-blowing and underground resistance to oppressive and illegal statecraft, that people of conscience may be rallying to expose their government’s wrongdoings and give succour to Assange’s fight for liberty. For all UK and Swedish governments’ customary public bluster – and how Hammond resembles a playground bully being publicly humiliated yet pretending it didn’t happen – they will need to address the UN determination and tread a very careful path in their responses. Public rejection will set important and dangerous precedents, as another high-profile dissident immediately recognised.
What is also evident following the ruling and experiences on the street in Knightsbridge, is a redrawing of battle lines being Assange’s supporters and those press, particularly UK faux-liberal mainstream publishers, who have taken offence at Assange’s victory, and choose not to question the Swedish prosecution’s efficacy or integrity – as highlighted in the UNWGAD conclusion – but instead turn their gaze to vilify Assange and indeed the UN experts themselves. The knowledge of experienced human rights commentators counts for nothing if you are a UK journalist on full fact-denying, Assange-rubbishing autopilot.
All this points to something of a new chapter in the Assange case. The solidarity with Assange continues. For as long as necessary. Meeting the regular vigil crew, an international group, knowledgeable and personally affected by human rights issues and states’ oppression of dissent, always emboldens – a thoughtful, and politically astute group of individuals drawn together through recognition of the importance of Assange’s plight and the injustice creating it. Lamentable as it is that the UK media is largely unable to push itself towards dissent where Julian is concerned, it is heartening that big victories can still be won, international political pressure garnered and new networks of support – on the street in London and via countless unknown others across the globe – become apparent. It is very sweet indeed.