A United Nations panel on Friday said that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s refuge inside the embassy of Ecuador in London could be classified as “arbitrary detention” by the government of Sweden and that the Australian activist should be allowed to walk free.
The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that during Assange’s long-standing attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden – where he is currently wanted by authorities for two separate cases of sexual assault (specifically, having consensual sex without a condom) – the activist was subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty and should be compensated adequately by Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Assange currently refuses to return to Sweden as he argues that the country’s efforts to bring him in for questioning will eventually end in him being extradited to the United States, where he may face charges for leaking thousands of classified documents.
Specifically, the five-member panel has looked at Assange’s initial detention at Wandsworth prison, his house arrest in the United Kingdom for over 500 days and finally his voluntary refuge at Ecuador’s embassy in London.
In the run-up to this ruling, over the last week, Assange’s critics have raised questions over how the Working Group decided that his confinement was arbitrary and deprived of liberty, considering that the government of Ecuador isn’t holding him against his will.
The UN panel accuses the United Kingdom of arbitrarily detaining Assange and points to his detention at Wandsworth prison and subsequent house arrest in the UK as examples of deprivation of liberty. Furthermore, the Working Group classifies this detention as arbitrary because during his time at Wandsworth, Assange was held in isolation by UK authorities.
The bigger bombshell, however, is that the panel views Assange’s time in Ecuador’s embassy in London as arbitrary detention too because of “the lack of diligence by the Swedish prosecutor in its investigations, which resulted in the lengthy detention of Mr. Assange”.
In specifically faulting the Swedish authorities, the panel has thrown light on one of the more perplexing aspects of how the sexual assault case against Assange has proceeded. Assange was first wanted for questioning in Sweden back in 2010. However for the last five years Swedish prosecutors have consistently refused to interview Assange in London, instead demanding that he return to Sweden.
Only after being harshly criticised in late 2014 by Sweden’s court of appeals for “failing to explore alternative avenues to move the investigation forward” did the investigators agree to travel to London to question Assange.
What the panel is signalling, therefore, is that a lack of diligence on the part of the Swedish authorities, whether with regard to the alleged sexual offences or the pace at which their investigation is moving forward, is currently preventing Assange from enjoying the asylum granted to him by the government of Ecuador.
The UN panel caps it finding by by stating that Assange’s detention is in violations of “Articles 9 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and and Articles 7, 9(1) 9(3), 9(4), 10 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
“The Working Group therefore requested Sweden and the United Kingdom to 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 statement said.
More importantly, the panel also added that “the detention should be brought to an end and that Assange should be afforded the right to compensation.
What happens now? Assange and WikiLeaks plan on holding a press conference at noon (GMT) to discuss his next steps and The Wire will continue to update this piece and have more coverage as his next course of action becomes clear.
The UN ruling is not legally binding on any party and the governments of UK and Sweden have already announced that their perspective differs from that of the UN. UK authorities also have pointed out that if Assange steps outside the embassy, he will be arrested.
On his part, Assange, in a statement issued on Thursday, said that if the UN panel ruled in his favour, the arrest warrant should be dropped and his passport returned.
The way forward (Updated: 6.56 pm IST, February 5, 2016)
At the press conference in London, Assange’s legal team made it clear that Assange would not be walking out of Ecuador’s embassy any time soon, instead stating that it was now “Sweden and the United Kingdom’s time to implement the verdict”; referring to of course the UN panel ruling that was released earlier on Friday.
His legal team’s strategy is now two-fold: to first use the panel’s scathing indictment of the Swedish investigators to have the case against Assange move forward; the first step in this is to have the Swedish prosecutor interview Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy and record his statement. The second move is to use the UN panel’s findings to place pressure on the governments of United Kingdom and Sweden and have them implement the recently released verdict (best case scenario) or provide Assange with assurances that would allow him to leave his current confinement.
Assange, who still remains holed up in the embassy and attended the press conference via Skype, lashed out at the U.K government’s response to the panel’s opinions. Earlier in the day, UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond slammed the working group finding’s as “frankly ridiculous”.
“The remarks and responses are beneath the stature that a foreign minister should express in this situation. The lawfulness of my detention is now a matter of settled law. The United Kingdom and Sweden had their opportunity to appeal; the last two weeks they have had that opportunity. They did not do so. They cannot now seek to object to a process that they themselves were involved in,” Assange said in a prepared statement.
After stressing the international backlash that the UK and Sweden could face if they didn’t follow through on the recommendations of the UN working group, Assange ended with saying, “I would like to say thank you, that I miss my family. That we have today a really significant victory that has brought a smile to my face and I hope many others as well.”