UN panel backs WikiLeaks' Assange, but he still may not go free

The UK government has said the panel decision is not binding on it

Julian Assange

WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange spoke at the Hack In The Box conference in Malaysia on Oct. 8, 2009.

Credit: Darryl Yeoh

A UN panel has ruled that the time Julian Assange has spent cooped up in the London embassy of the Ecuador government amounts to arbitrary detention by the U.K. and Sweden, but it is unlikely that the founder of the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing website will walk away free soon.

The U.K. government has reportedly said that the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is not binding on it, while there is a warrant against Assange. It did not change its earlier stance that it would arrest Assange for his extradition to Sweden as soon as he leaves the Ecuador embassy, where he has been living since 2012. Shortly after the panel announced its opinion, the U.K. said it would formally contest it.

A decision would be "indirectly but still legally binding on the relevant authorities of the relevant states," said Christophe Peschoux, an official at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, ahead of the Friday announcement by the panel.

Assange had earlier said through a Twitter message that if the UN Working Group were to rule against him, he would surrender to the U.K. police at noon on Friday "as there is no meaningful prospect of further appeal."

The controversial Australian obtained asylum from the government of Ecuador in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning in connection with a sexual assault investigation. But he and his followers have expressed concern that from Sweden, he could be transferred to the U.S. to face charges under the country's Espionage Act. WikiLeaks has published leaked diplomatic cables and other information that embarrassed several governments, including the U.S., and international businesses.

The threat of arrest by the U.K. police has required Assange to stay within the embassy despite the offer of asylum in Ecuador. In a submission to the UN Working Group his stay at the embassy was described as arbitrary detention, and the panel was asked to "require" U.K. authorities "to give effect to Mr. Assange's right to asylum by allowing him safe passage to Ecuador."

Since August 2012, Assange "has not been able to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy and is subject to extensive surveillance by the British police," said the panel, which added that it considered that the detention should be brought to an end, besides giving Assange the right to compensation. The panel also said that Assange had been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty, from his "initial detention in Wandsworth prison which was followed by house arrest and his confinement at the Ecuadorian Embassy."

It seems unlikely that Assange will now leave the embassy, unless he has an assurance from the U.K. police that he will not be arrested. "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 wrote in his statement on Twitter.

The focus will now most likely shift to demands that the U.K. and Sweden respect and abide by the decision of the U.N. panel. The Human Rights Council of the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 2013 calling on states to take steps to remedy situations where people are identified by the Working Group as having been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty. Protesters have asked Assange's supporters to gather Friday outside the Ecuador embassy in London.

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