Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s years-long confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London has been ruled unlawful by the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and his lawyers have now called for Sweden’s extradition request to be dropped immediately.
The ruling is not binding and the British Foreign Office maintains the legal obligation to extradite Assange. Accordingly, he will be arrested should he decide to vacate the embassy premises.
“We have been consistently clear that Mr. Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the U.K., but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorian embassy,” said the Foreign Office in a statement, according tothe Guardian. “An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European arrest warrant in place, so the U.K. continues to have a legal obligation to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden.”
Prior to the U.N. panel’s ruling, Assange had said he would leave the embassy voluntarily and accept arrest should a determination against him be handed down, “as there is no meaningful prospect of further appeal. However, should I appeal 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.”
Though the panel concluded its investigation and ruled on December 4, it is unclear whether Assange was informed of the findings. Anna Ekberg of the Swedish foreign ministry said there would be no statement before the ruling is formally published on Friday.
Should the Swedish or U.K. governments ignore the panel’s decision, an unnamed and unverified source “familiar with the U.N. working group” told the Guardian “it would make it very difficult for them to make use of U.N. human rights council decisions in the future to bring pressure on other countries over human rights violations — the ruling sends a strong political message.”
Julian Assange reportedly fears not only extradition to Sweden, but secondary extradition to the U.S. over charges of espionage for an historic leak of classified military and diplomatic documents, including infamous footage taken from an Apache helicopter in Baghdad in 2007 that appeared to show the arbitrary assassination of twelve people — including two Reuters journalists.
Ahead of the ruling, one of Assange’s attorney’s, Per Samuelson, said a determination in his client’s favor should lead to his immediate release; and, as he told Reuters, “It is a very important body that would then be saying that Sweden’s actions are inconsistent with the European Commission on Human Rights. And it is international common practice to follow those decisions.”
As The Sydney Morning Herald noted, the U.N. group “has made previous rulings on illegal detention which were followed by their release, such as Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. However, in 2014 they called for the release of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who is still in jail.”