LONDON (AFP) - Smiling and squinting in the daylight, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spoke from the balcony of Ecuador’s embassy on Friday in a rare public appearance after a UN panel declared him “arbitrarily detained”.
Dressed in a suit and tie, the pale 44-year-old Australian brandished a copy of the UN panel decision in his hands, appearing overwhelmed with emotion.
“How sweet it is! This is a victory that cannot be denied. It is a victory of historical importance,” he told a scrum of journalists and a handful of supporters outside the embassy in London.
One supporter in the crowd shouted: “Your friends are here Julian!” as he came out onto the balcony.
But when a heckler shouted “Are you going to stay another five years, mate?”, the campaigner responded: “Can someone close that person off?”
Journalists and supporters had waited since before dawn for a glimpse of the man at the heart of an international legal battle involving Ecuador’s government, British police and Swedish prosecutors.
Annoyed residents in London’s plush Knightsbridge neighbourhood made their way past the cameras but only around two dozen supporters showed up for Assange, who made headlines in 2010 with a series of leaks of classified US military and diplomatic files.
“The UK must let him walk free. It’s important for democracy,” said Fernando Berdon from Catalonia.
Assange has lived in the embassy since June 19, 2012 after he exhausted all chances of appeal through British courts against an extradition to Sweden to face sex crime accusations involving two women.
Ecuador has since granted him political asylum.
“The Truth Must Never Be Silenced”, “Free Assange” and “Don’t Shoot The Messenger” read some of the signs held up by protesters, including the well-known human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
“The UN ruling is a clear vindication of Julian Assange. He has been held in arbitrary detention without charge for five years,” he said.
“That is a violation of Julian Assange’s human rights. Britain must recognise that Julian Assange has a right for asylum,” he added.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNGWAD) opinion called on Britain and Sweden to let him walk free, saying that his “detention should be brought to an end” and Assange should receive compensation.
A protester from Kent in south-east England, who only gave her first name as Elsa, read out a letter in front of the embassy after the decision was published saying that “information is the oxygen of democracy”.
“Shame on Britain! We urge UK to give Julian Assange safe passage to a hospital on humanitarian grounds,” Elsa, who wore a black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, shouted through a megaphone.
“Britain and Sweden are violating Julian Assange’s human rights. They are breaking international law with impunity. This is no democracy if they arrest Julian Assange!” she said.
As the wait for Assange dragged on, a critic also appeared outside the red-brick mansion block near Harrods department store, which neighbours the embassy offices.
John Holden, a financial adviser, said: “He’s a tosser. A parasite. He should come out and face justice”.