by Esther Addley, David Crouch in Gothenburg, Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent and Jessica Elgot
5 February 2016
NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT
YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.
Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy. The WikiLeaks founder is calling for the threat of arrest to be lifted. Photograph: Kerim Okten/EPA
Julian Assange will demand on Friday that Sweden and the UK lift any threat of arrest to allow him to walk free from Ecuador’s embassy in London, after a United Nations panel found that his three-and-a-half year confinement at the embassy in London amounted to “arbitrary detention”.
Sweden’s foreign ministry confirmed on Thursday that the UN panel, which will publish its findings on Friday, had decided in favour of the WikiLeaks founder and found that he was “arbitrarily detained”.
Assange has not set foot outside the cramped west London embassy building since June 2012, when he sought asylum from Ecuador in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden. The Australian is wanted for questioning over an allegation of rape dating to 2010, which he denies.
The findings of the UN working group on arbitrary detention (UNWGAD) are not legally binding, but can be used to apply pressure on states in human rights cases. The British and Swedish governments were informed of the working group’s conclusion on 22 January. Both indicated on Thursday that they do not accept its findings.
Anna Ekberg, spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry, said: “The UN working group on arbitrary detention has concluded that Mr Assange is arbitrarily detained. The working group’s view differs from that of the Swedish authorities. We will forward a reply to the working group [on Friday]. It will be more clear tomorrow why we reject the working group’s conclusions.”
The British foreign office said it would not “pre-empt” the panel’s report but said in a statement: “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 Ecuadorian embassy.
“An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European arrest warrant in place, so the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden.”
A spokesperson for the Swedish Prosecution Authority said that the country’s Supreme Court found in May 2015 that Assange “should still be detained in his absence”, and that the UNWGAB finding “has no formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law”.
Assange issued a statement via Twitter early on Thursday saying that if the five-person panel found against him, he would voluntarily walk out of the embassy and offer himself for immediate arrest, “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.”
He is expected to appear by videolink at a press conference on Friday to call for the threat of arrest and extradition to be lifted.
Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Per Samuelson, said that if the working group found in his favour, “there is only one solution for Marianne Ny [the Swedish prosecutor seeking Assange’s extradition], and that is to immediately release him and drop the case”. Samuelson added: “If he is regarded as detained, that means he has served his time, so I see no other option for Sweden but to close the case.”
Assange’s lawyers also want assurances from the UK that, even if the Swedish prosecution were to be dropped, he would not be arrested and subject to a second extradition to the US. Assange and WikiLeaks have been the subject of a secret grand jury investigation in Virginia that has been looking into whether to prosecute them over the whistleblowing website’s US cable disclosures.
Melinda Taylor, a legal spokeswoman for Assange, said they had “every reason to believe” that the US would seek Assange’s extradition. “If one of the orders is that he should be released and his liberty should be assured, we would obviously look to the UK to make sure that it is effective and not illusory -– that it’s not just liberty for five seconds, but liberty that is meaningful.”
In the past, the UNWGAD has highlighted the plight of significant international figures, including the formerly imprisoned Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi. The UN panel declined to take a view on the detention of Saddam Hussein in Iraq by the US forces in 2006 but eventually said that his former minister, Tariq Aziz, was being arbitrarily detained.
In 2008, an UNWGAD report declared that Mustafa Abdi, a Somalian convicted rapist who was held in immigration custody in the UK for several years after the end of his sentence had been subject to arbitrary detention. The European court of human rights subsequently agreed and awarded Abdi compensation.
Mark Ellis, executive director of the London-based International Bar Association, said a finding by the UN panel in Assange’s favour “would seem to contradict a fairly extensive legal process both in the UK and in Sweden”.
Ellis added: “It’s important to maintain adherence to rule of law principles and ensure that individuals have to abide by legal rulings. It’s surprising to think that Assange could be exempted from those principles. The ruling by the UN panel is not binding on British law.
“It would, however, provide Assange with support for his claim that he should not be extradited. I’m sure the UK is trying to figure a way out. It would be difficult for me to think that there should be an exception [from the European arrest warrant] for this case.”