The UN's human rights commissioner has expressed concern about the withdrawal of services from the WikiLeaks website. Meanwhile, Russia's prime minister accuses the US of hypocrisy over the affair.
WikiLeaks supporters claim pressure is being exerted
The UN commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay expressed dismay over the withdrawal of financial and internet services to the controversial WikiLeaks website.
Pillay said that measures taken by companies - which WikiLeaks' supporters claim are due to pressure from foreign governments - could represent an infringement of the right to freedom of expression.
Pillay said courts should decide on the balance between security and freedom
"I'm concerned about reports of pressure exerted on private companies, including banks, credit card companies, and Internet service providers to close down credit lines for donations to WikiLeaks as well as to stop hosting the website or its mother sites," Navi Pillay told a news conference on Thursday.
"They could be interpreted as an attempt to censor the publication of information, thus potentially violating WikiLeaks' right to freedom of expression."
Payments suspended, account closed
WikiLeaks angered the US and other governments with the release in November of 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables, with Washington saying the information could put American lives in danger. Credit card firms Mastercard and Visa later suspended payments made to WikiLeaks, while the Swiss Post Office shut down a bank account opened by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Pillay said the case "raises complex human rights questions about balancing freedom of information and the need to protect national security or public order."
"If WikiLeaks has committed any recognizable illegal acts then this should be handled through the legal system and not through pressure and intimidation including on third parties," said Pillay a former UN war crimes judge.
Assange was arrested in London, and awaits a hearing
Pillay noted that such questions were not related to charges against Assange for crimes including rape in Sweden.
Supporters of Assange claim that the charges against him have been manufactured as part of a bid to halt the website's activities, along with the pressure on firms to cut WikiLeaks' income stream.
'Pot calls kettle black,' Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Assange's arrest in Britain, for extradition, was "undemocratic" and accused the US of "hypocrisy" for attacking Russia's record on democracy.
"If we are talking about democracy, it should be complete. Why was Mr. Assange hidden in jail? Is that democracy? As we say in the village, the pot is calling the kettle black," Putin told reporters. "I want to send the ball back to our American colleagues."
Assange is currently in custody in Britain awaiting a hearing over his extradition after a warrant was issued by Sweden.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks supporters on Thursday vowed to step up cyber-attacks on companies that have taken action against WikiLeaks.
A group calling itself "Anonymous" has claimed credit for temporarily bringing down the websites of Visa and Mastercard.
Author: Richard Connor (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner