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'How sweet it is,' WikiLeaks' Julian Assange declares after U.N. panel backs his freedom

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Friday he felt vindicated by the findings of a United Nations panel that ruled he should be allowed to walk free.

The Australian citizen also warned there could be serious diplomatic consequences for Britain and Sweden if they continue to reject the findings of a “world expert body.”

Assange made a 10-minute statement at a press conference held by his legal team. He appeared via video link from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been seeking political asylum.

Wearing a jacket and tie, and sitting in front of a backdrop branded with the website Justice4Assange.com, he alluded to the toll this has taken on him.

“I’ve been detained now without charge in this country, the United Kingdom, for 5½ years. That’s 5½ years where I've had great difficulty seeing my family and seeing my children,” he said.

He appeared later on a balcony at the embassy as a large crowd of journalists and onlookers gathered in the road below. Holding a copy of the United Nations report that said he is “entitled to his freedom of movement” as well as compensation, he declared: “How sweet it is.” 

In the report published Friday morning, the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said the Australian citizen has been “arbitrarily detained” in Britain since December 2010, when he was first sought for questioning on allegations of sexual misconduct.

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But British officials swiftly issued a strongly worded statement Friday saying "this changes nothing" and it would “formally contest” the working group’s ruling.

“The opinion of the U.N. Working Group ignores the facts and the well-recognized protections of the British legal system," a government spokesman said. "He is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorian Embassy.”

“We are deeply frustrated that this unacceptable situation is still being allowed to continue,” the spokesman said.

The U.N. report concluded that Assange has been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty dating to 2010 when he was held in “initial detention in Wandsworth prison, which was followed by house arrest and his confinement at the Ecuadorian embassy."

It also found there was a "lack of diligence" on the part of the Swedish Prosecutor's Office in its investigations, which has resulted in Assange's lengthy loss of freedom.

Assange has been holed up in the embassy since 2012, when he claimed asylum after Sweden issued a warrant for his arrest based on testimony from two women there who say he sexually assaulted them. He has not been charged and denies the claims. Sweden has since dropped much of the case but still wants to question him about an alleged rape.

Assange fears that Sweden or Britain would turn him over to the U.S. for prosecution on espionage charges stemming from WikiLeaks' massive release of classified documents in 2010.

British police say that they will arrest Assange if he steps outside the embassy as a European Arrest Warrant remains in place and Britain has a legal obligation to extradite him.

Assange’s legal team said Friday’s report was a “damning indictment” of the way his case has been handled and claimed their client was a “victim of a significant miscarriage of justice” due to his whistleblowing activities. They also said his indefinite detention amounted to a form of mental torture.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, we just need the United Kingdom and Sweden to step up to the plate so that Julian can finally come out into the light,” said his lawyer, Melinda Taylor.

British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, however, described the U.N. panel’s findings as “ridiculous” and branded Assange a “fugitive from justice."

“He is hiding from justice in the embassy,” Hammond said. “He can come out onto the pavement any time he chooses. He is 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 frankly a ridiculous finding by the working group and we reject it," Hammond said.

Assange told the press conference that Hammond’s comments were “beneath the stature that a foreign secretary should express in this situation.”

"I consider the outcome in this case to be vindication," he said. “The time for appeal is over."

The U.N. panel’s findings were widely anticipated to rule in Assange’s favor and he issued a statement Thursday saying that if his case were upheld he should have his passport returned and arrest warrants dropped.

But that appears highly unlikely.

Swedish authorities have also issued statements saying they do not agree with the assessment of the working group.

The working group is made up of five legal experts from around the world and can rule on whether imprisonment or detention is unlawful. It helps to influence and put pressure on governments but is not legally binding.

Boyle is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

10:07 a.m.: This article has been updated with an additional comment by Assange.

7:01 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments and details.

This article was originally published at 2:58 a.m.

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