The curious case of Julian Assange

February 09, 2016 12:32 am | Updated November 17, 2021 02:10 am IST

Personal liberty still eludes WikiLeaks founder and Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange, despite a ruling by a United Nations legal panel that >has declared his confinement “arbitrary and illegal” . The ruling of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention — the authoritative UN body that pronounces on illegal detentions based on binding and legal international instruments — has met with support, but not surprisingly, with a bitter backlash as well, notably from governments that have suffered incalculable damage from WikiLeaks’ relentless exposures. Sweden and Britain >have rejected the panel’s findings outright , despite the fact that they are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the other treaties upon which the UN legal panel has based its recommendation. The same countries have in the past upheld rulings of the same panel on similar cases such as the ‘arbitrary detention’ of the Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed. The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has called the ruling “ridiculous”, and dismissed the distinguished panel as comprising “lay people, not lawyers”. As for the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office, it has declared that the UN body’s opinion “has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law”. In other words, both countries argue that his confinement is not arbitrary but self-imposed, and he is at ‘liberty’ to step out, be arrested, and face the consequences.

The specific >allegation of rape that Mr. Assange faces in Sweden must be seen in the larger international political context of his confinement. He has made it clear he is not fleeing Swedish justice, offering repeatedly to give evidence to the Swedish authorities, with the caveat that he be questioned at his refuge in London, either in person or by webcam. While he will have to prove his innocence, Mr. Assange is not being paranoid when he talks of his fear of extradition to the U.S.: Chelsea Manning, whose damning Iraq revelations were first carried on WikiLeaks, was held in a long pre-trial detention and convicted to 35 years of imprisonment. The U.S. Department of Justice has confirmed on more than one occasion that there is a pending prosecution and Grand Jury against him and WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange’s defence team argues that the Swedish police case is but a smokescreen for a larger political game plan centred on Washington, which is determined to root out whistle-blowers such as Mr. Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning for exposing dirty state secrets. It was WikiLeaks that carried the shocking video evidence of the wholesale collateral murder by the U.S.-led forces of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to thousands of pages of evidence of other violations of sovereignty and international law. By defying the UN panel’s carefully considered recommendation that Mr. Assange be freed and awarded compensation, Britain and Sweden are damaging their own international standing. They must reverse their untenable stand and do what law and decency dictate by allowing Mr. Assange an opportunity to prove his innocence without fearing extradition to the United States.

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