WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be allowed to walk free immediately and compensated for his “arbitrary detention” of over five years by the UK and Sweden, a United Nations panel ruled on Friday, a finding hailed by the whistleblower as “vindication” of his innocence.
The Geneva-based five-member 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, head of the expert panel of the Group.
“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.
Assange told reporters via video link from the Ecuadorean embassy building in central London, where he has been holed up, that “it is now the task of the states of Sweden and the United Kingdom as a whole to implement the verdict”, which he hailed as “vindication” of his innocence.
Assange’s lawyer Melinda Taylor also called the ruling “a resounding vindication of Assange’s position”.
The computer hacker, 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 confined to a small in the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden to face a rape investigation.
However, both Sweden and the UK rejected the non-binding legal opinion, saying it “changes nothing”.
The UK said it will formally contest the opinion, which Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond termed as “ridiculous” while Sweden said the panel had no right to “interfere”.
The Working Group said it “requested Sweden and the United Kingdom to assess the situation of 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 Working Group also considered that the detention should be brought to an end and that Assange should be afforded the right to compensation.”
Assange was granted political asylum by Ecuador, which has housed him since 2012 at its embassy. He has likened his confinement to living in a space station.
In 2014, Assange 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.
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.
Two women have accused Assange of sexual assault -- a charge he has denied. Last year, Swedish prosecutors dropped two cases of sexual assault against him and he has not been formally charged by them.
In a statement published by the WikiLeaks on Twitter on Thursday, he 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.”
Three of the five-member panel supported the finding against the UK and Sweden, with one excusing herself from the vote on account of sharing Australian nationality with Assange. The fifth disagreed with the position of the majority and said Assange’s situation is not one of detention and therefore falls outside the mandate of the Working Group.
In its official opinion, the 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.
Hammond called Assange “a fugitive from justice” while adding that “this is frankly a ridiculous finding by the working group and we reject it”.
Sweden’s foreign ministry said the panel had no right to “interfere in an ongoing case handled by a Swedish public authority” while the Swedish Prosecution Authority said the call “has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law”.
The UK has stationed police for round-the-clock guard outside the Ecuadorean embassy to arrest Assange if he leaves the premises of the embassy.
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.
The cost of policing his Ecuadorian embassy hideout in London’s posh Knightsbridge had been recently revealed at over £12 million (Rs 117.6 crore).
Image: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appears on screen via video link during a news conference at the Frontline Club in London. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters