Geneva/London: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be freed, a UN panel ruled today as it called on the UK and Sweden to compensate the whistleblower for his “arbitrary detention” of over five years.
“The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considers that the various forms of deprivation of liberty to which Julian Assange has been subjected constitute a form of arbitrary detention,” said Seong-Phil Hong, who currently heads the expert panel of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
“The Working Group maintains that the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to compensation,” Hong added.
However, both Sweden and the UK rejected the ruling – which is non-binding – saying it “changes nothing”.
The 44-year-old Australian, who founded the WikiLeaks in 2006 that released 500,000 secret US military files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 250,000 diplomatic cables enraging Washington, has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in central London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face a rape investigation.
Assange was granted political asylum by Ecuador, which has housed him since 2012 at its embassy where he lives in a small room and has likened his confinement to living in a space station.
In 2014, the computer hacker had complained to the UN against the UK and Sweden that he was being “arbitrarily detained” in the Ecuadorean embassy as he could not leave its premises without being arrested.
Two women have accused him of sexual assault – a charge he has denied. Last year, Swedish prosecutors dropped two cases of sexual assault against him and has not been formally charged by them.
Assange fears he will be extradited to the US from Sweden where he faces espionage charges on account of leaking secret American documents which among other issues also reveal the US and UK’s grim conduct in Iraq of war crimes, torture and summary executions.
In its official opinion, the Working Group considered that Assange had been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth Prison in London, followed by house arrest and then confinement at the Ecuadorean Embassy since his arrest in London on December 7, 2010.
Following the ruling of the UN panel, the British government said: “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.”
“The opinion of the UN working group ignores the facts and the well-recognised protections of the British legal system. He is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy,” it said.
Swedish Prosecution Authority said the call from the UN working group “has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law”.
In a statement published by the WikiLeaks on Twitter yesterday, Assange said: “Should the UN announce tomorrow that I have lost my case against the United Kingdom and Sweden I shall exit the embassy at noon on Friday to accept arrest by British police as there is no meaningful prospect of further appeal.”
“However, should I prevail and the state parties be found to have acted unlawfully, I expect the immediate return of my passport and the termination of further attempts to arrest me.”
The UK has stationed Met Police for round-the-clock guard outside the Ecuadorean embassy to arrest Assange if he leaves the premises of the embassy.
In view of Assange’s deteriorating health, his US lawyer Carey Shenkman had said last year that “by claiming that Mr. Assange must give up his asylum in order to receive medical treatment, the UK government is forcing him to choose between the human right to asylum and the human right to medical treatment. No one should ever have to face that choice.”
The Australian was arrested in 2010 under a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden but claimed asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy while on bail.
Any decision by the group would not be legally binding, but other people have reportedly been released in the past on the basis of its rulings.