A United Nations panel has ruled as ‘unlawful detention’ the three-year period of political asylum sought by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. This was reported by Reuters on Thursday evening quoting a Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
The ruling by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that will be formally communicated to Mr. Assange tomorrow will be a major boost to the long fight mounted by Mr. Assange and his supporters against the Swedish and British governments’ efforts to arrest and extradite him to Sweden. The Australian human rights campaigner was arrested in London in 2010 under a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden on charges of sexual assault and rape.
Mr. Assange sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 when the UK Supreme Court upheld the extradition orders. He has remained confined within the Embassy for the last three-and-a-half years with a posse of policemen on 24-hour vigil outside to arrest him if he stepped out. Mr. Assange has strongly denied the charges of which two were dropped but not that of rape. He refused to be tried in Sweden fearing that he would be extradited to the United States, where he faces official secrecy charges for the publication by Wikileaks of thousands of classified documents
“It is a game changer,” said Carey Shenkman, a First Amendment and human rights attorney on Mr. Assange’s legal team.
“We have been waiting for this for 15 months, and we are very happy. It is a 15-month independent review taking into account all evidence,” he told The Hindu in a telephonic interview from the United States.
In a statement posted on the Wikileaks Twitter account earlier in the day Mr. Assange had said "Should the U.N. 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."
In his submission to the panel Mr Assange argued that living in a 30 square metres room in the Ecuadorean Embassy with no sunlight or fresh air had taken a "significant toll" on his physical and mental health.
BBC reports Downing Street as saying that the panel's ruling would not be legally binding in the UK.
It quotes a government spokesperson saying "We have been consistently clear that Mr Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy."
“The working group is the highest authority on detention in the UN, globally respected for their trials of high profile cases. The starting point is that the countries [Sweden and Britain] participated in the process and submitted evidence to the panel. I would be shocked if they played the game and then didn’t like the outcome,” Mr. Shenkman said.
Though decisions of the panel are not binding, it will affect the international credibility of both governments if they ignored the decision of the panel, says Mr. Shenkman. “Both countries rely on the working group. It would be very detrimental for them to now ignore the opinion. I would say that it is a path that they do not want to go down.”
Mr. Assange has been suffering from severe shoulder pain was unable to do the diagnostic tests his doctor recommended.