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UN view on Assange rebuffed

February 5, 2016

Britain and Sweden have rebuffed a UN panel's ruling that the stay by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador's London embassy amounts to "unlawful detention." Britain says the UN view is "ridiculous."

Großbritannien Assange PK vie Skype Screenshot
Image: Reuters/N. Hall

Assange on the UN panel's ruling

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond dismissed the panel on Friday, saying it comprised "laypeople and not lawyers," and told Assange publicly he should end four years of self-imposed confinement and "face justice in Sweden."

Assange, in a subsequent video link from Ecuador's embassy, where he sought asylum in 2012, told a London press conference that the UN's top "world expert body" on illegal detentions had found that he had been detained unlawfully without charge.

The UN panel's ruling was a "vindication," Assange said, and described Hammond's remarks as "being beneath the statue of a foreign minister."

'Settled' international law

"The lawfulness of the my detention is now a matter of settled law," Assange said, maintaining his stance that if handed over to Sweden he could then be extradited to the United States to face prosecution over Wikileak's publication of classified documents.

It was now the task of the states of Sweden and the United Kingdom to implement the verdict, Assange added, saying that Sweden and Britain knew "full well" as international players the diplomatic consequences, should they fail to treat the UN panel's ruling seriously.

Neither Sweden nor the United Kingdom had used the opportunity to lodge appeals during the 16-month inquiry conducted by the UN panel, he added.

A lawyer for Assange, Melinda Taylor, said Assange had sought shelter at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 because it was the "only form of protection he had," given lack of assurances on due legal process from Sweden and the United States.

Sweden issued a pan-European warrant in 2010 to have Assange, a computer programmer and hacker, arrested over a rape allegation.

Philip Hammond
UN panel's findings 'ridiculous,' says Britain's HammondImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Hill

'Frankly ridiculous,' says Hammond

Earlier on Friday, Hammond had ridiculed the UN panel's finding, telling ITV news that Assange "can come out any time he chooses."

"This is frankly a ridiculous finding by the working group and we reject it," Hammond said.

Britain's Foreign Office also issued a statement, accusing the UN panel of ignoring facts and "well-recognized protections of the British legal system, adding that Britain had a legal obligation to send Assange to Sweden for questioning.

Panel 'interfering,' says Sweden

Sweden's foreign ministry, in a letter to the UN panel released Friday, said Stockholm "does not agree with the assessment made by the majority of the Working Group."

Sweden said the panel did not have the right to "interfere in an ongoing case handled by a Swedish public authority."

"Mr Assange is free to leave the embassy at any point and Swedish authorities have no control over his decision to stay at the embassy," the ministry said.

'Abide by UN recommendations'

Assange's lawyer in Stockholm, Thomas Olsson, said Swedish prosecutors should show that they respect the UN report.

"If Sweden expects other countries to abide by UN recommendations, then they must also respect those decisions," Olsson said.

Late on Thursday, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said he expected the UN panel's decision to show that "we were right, after so many years."

On Friday, Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told a press conference in Quito: "It is time for both governments [Britain and Sweden] to correct their mistake, time for them to allow Julian Assange his freedom, time for them to end this arbitrary detention and furthermore compensate the damage done to this man."

Assange on the UN panel's ruling

One dissenter, one abstainee

From Geneva, UN human rights official Christophe Peschoux said the panel had made a 3-to-1 decision in Assange's favor.

The dissenting opinion had come from a Ukrainian member of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Vladimir Tochilovsky.

An Australian member of the five-person panel had excused herself from the proceedings on the grounds that she shared the same nationality as Assange.

Probe 'ongoing,' says Sweden

The Swedish Prosecution Authority said the UN panel's call that Assange be allowed to go free and be compensated "has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law."

Under Sweden's statute of limitations, its case against Assange does not expire until 2020.

Wikileaks, founded as an anti-secrecy group in 2006, subsequently infuriated US authorities by releasing 500,000 military files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 250,000 diplomatic cables.

Its main informant, US soldier Chelsea Manning, was subsequently sentenced to 35 years in prison for breaches of US espionage law.

ipj/ng (AFP, AP, Reuters)