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UN panel rules Assange arbitrarily held

Nik Martin, Chase WinterFebruary 5, 2016

A UN panel has said that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is being arbitrarily detained at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. But some legal experts doubt that the UK and Sweden will be swayed by the non-binding ruling.

Julian Assange
Image: picture-alliance/Yui Mok/PA Wire

Despite a UN expert panel ruling siding with Assange over his claims of illegal imprisonment, the Australian editor's five-and-a-half year legal battle "is likely to be a continued impasse," one UK-based law expert told DW.

On Friday, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention agreed that the WikiLeaks founder was being arbitrarily detained and should be compensated.

"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," the group's head, Seong-Phil Hong, said in a statement.

The UN group said Assange's arbitrary detention should end, his freedom of movement respected, and that the whistleblower be compensated.

The WikiLeaks founder, who is on the run from Swedish and British authorities, has been granted political asylum by Ecuador and has spent more than three years in the country's London embassy.

The 44-year-old is trying to avoid extradition to Sweden on what he claims are trumped-up and politically motivated rape charges.

If questioned in Sweden, he believes he will be extradited to the US over an outstanding espionage investigation into Wikileaks, although no formal charges have been made.

Facing arrest

His official campaign website "justice4assange.com" maintains that the UN panel's finding would mean that the former hacker should be released and compensated, but British and Swedish legal specialists think that interpretation is more than doubtful, since the ruling is not legally binding.

"The UK is unlikely to change its position - the European arrest warrant issued by Sweden is a legal obligation for the UK - and so Assange only enjoys immunity (from prosecution) while he remains in the Ecuadorian embassy," said Professor Robert Cryer from the University of Birmingham.

Cryer, who is a lecturer on International and Criminal Law, was surprised at the UN's decision.

"The simple fact is that Assange has decided not to exit the embassy. If you or I were to refuse to leave our houses to avoid arrest, it wouldn't be classed as arbitrary detention that we'd decided to stay indoors," he said.

Ecuador embassy in London
Assange jumped bail and escaped to the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Arrizabalaga

Swedish law expert Professor Pål Wrange went further, saying: "The reason why the arrest warrant is still hanging over his head is because Assange has not been cooperating and it's a serious crime that he is suspected of."

London's Metropolitan Police have said they'll still arrest the WikiLeaks founder if he leaves the embassy.

Assange's anxieties

Assange's legal team argued that the three-and-a-half-years spent at the Ecuadorian embassy has not been by choice. They claimed he has been unable to access the terms of asylum granted to him and that his mental and physical health have suffered because of the detention.

Britain has denied that Assange has been arbitrarily detained, saying that he had avoided arrest by jumping bail to flee to the embassy.

Wrange, who is a professor of Public and International Law at Stockholm University, stresses that the board's ruling is not legally binding on Sweden or the UK. But it might hold some sway as investigators decide on the next step in his case, he said.

"If the UN panel makes a strong case that there has been a violation of human rights, the Swedish prosecutor might take that into consideration."

Cryer agreed the UN panel's decision could have "moral weight," but it would be "easy to dismiss it" if their reasoning isn't very strong.

Next move?

On Thursday, Assange said he would respect the decision of the UN panel and if they ruled against him, and as there would be no meaningful prospect of further appeal, he'd accept arrest.

Even after the UN panel decision in his favor, if he leaves the embassy he would almost certainly be extradited to Sweden. There he still faces a rape allegation, although two other sexual assault claims have expired.

Following the apparent BBC leak on the decision on Thursday, Melinda Taylor, a lawyer working with Assange, told The Associated Press that depending on how British and Swedish authorities respond to the decision, the Australian was hopeful of being allowed safe passage to Ecuador in the coming days.

Assange in the Equador Embassy in London on August 19, 2012
Assange in the Equador Embassy in London on August 19, 2012Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Kerimokten

Other options remain

If those concessions aren't made, experts say another possible avenue for Assange lies in the so called 'Principle of Specialty' which is part of many international extradition treaties.

"That means if you extradite somebody for one crime, you can't then re-extradite them or charge them for any other crime," Cryer told DW.

He added that if the American investigation against Assange proceeded, and Sweden sought his extradition to the US, "there would have to be at the very least British consent for any re-extradition."

That permission would be given by the UK Home Secretary (Interior Minister), and Assange could still seek a judicial review of that decision in the courts.

Wrange believes Assange has little to worry about over the threat of re-extradition from Sweden to the US, where the Australian claims prosecutors have built an espionage case against him, related to WikiLeaks' publication of American military and diplomatic intelligence online.

"He could not be extradited from Sweden for political crimes. Of course, it depends on what he might be charged with, but generally speaking, espionage is considered to be a political crime," he said in a phone interview with DW.

Sweden unmoved

Ahead of the ruling, Sweden said it had seen the panels decision but disagreed.

"It is a different assessment than what the Swedish authorities have made," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Katarina Byrenius Roslund told The Associated Press.

In their initial response, Swedish prosecutors said the ruling would have no formal significance in the ongoing rape investigation.

"The prosecutor responsible for the case is on a journey and has not yet been able to take a position on the latest development," their statement said.

Infografik Schlüsselmomente im Fall Assange Englisch