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Julian Assange Has Been Arbitrarily Detained, U.N. Panel Finds

Julian Assange — the founder of WikiLeaks who sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden — has been arbitrarily detained in violation of international law, a United Nations human rights panel has concluded.

The panel, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, will announce its decision on Friday morning in Geneva, according to officials there. Its findings are a symbolic victory for Mr. Assange, but they are not legally binding and may have limited, if any, practical significance.

Swedish prosecutors want to question Mr. Assange, an Australian citizen, over a rape accusation. Mr. Assange and his team of lawyers say that criminal inquiry is a pretext for prosecution, and that Mr. Assange is essentially a political prisoner, targeted by the United States and its allies because of WikiLeaks' role in publishing more than 250,000 leaked State Department diplomatic cables — a deep embarrassment for the Obama administration — starting in 2010.

In a statement that WikiLeaks posted to Twitter on Thursday morning, Mr. Assange promised to leave the embassy at noon on Friday if the United Nations panel ruled against him. "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," the statement said.

The announcement created a stir on social media, but by Thursday afternoon the panel's conclusions — which were presented several weeks ago to the British and Swedish governments, but will be formally announced on Friday — became clear.

"The United Nations deemed that Mr. Assange is arbitrarily detained in contravention of international commitments," Anna Ekberg, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. "We note that the Working Group's view differs from that of the Swedish authorities."

Ms. Ekberg added that the matter was in the hands of Swedish prosecutors and referred questions to the country's Ministry of Justice. Later, the office of the country's director of public prosecutions, Marianne Ny, said that the United Nations panel's decision would not change her office's stance, or its request for Mr. Assange's extradition.

The London police ceased 24-hour surveillance of the Ecuadorean Embassy in October, citing the cost of the operation, but its position also has not changed.

"Should he leave the embassy the M.P.S. will make every effort to arrest him," the Metropolitan Police Service, also known as Scotland Yard, said on Thursday.

The British government said in a separate statement on Thursday: "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 Ecuadorean Embassy. 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."

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention — established in 1991, and now under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva — is the only nontreaty-based United Nations body that directly accepts petitions from individuals.

The panel — currently led by Seong Phil-hong, a South Korean law professor — has advocated on behalf of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's democracy movement; the Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was recently released from Iran; Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives; and the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, according to a website created by Mr. Assange's supporters.

But unless the Swedish government drops the matter, Mr. Assange's limbolike state is likely to continue. That said, his lawyers expressed hopefulness that he might soon be free.

"It is not legally binding, but I would take it for granted that Sweden would follow it," Per Samuelsson, a lawyer representing Mr. Assange, said on Thursday before the Swedish government confirmed the panel's findings. "To go against a decision would be to go against a unit of the United Nations, and their own interpretation of human rights. In that case, it would be for the Swedish prosecutor to cancel the decision and withdraw the European arrest warrant."

The WikiLeaks cables were not only a serious political embarrassment for Washington, but also represented an intelligence breach, foreshadowing the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden's subsequent disclosures about widespread electronic surveillance by the United States government. Many of the cables were analyzed and published, in redacted form, by a number of news organizations, including The Guardian and The New York Times.

Mr. Assange has denied the rape allegations in Sweden, which were made in 2010. Claes Borgstrom, a lawyer for the Swedish woman who made the accusation, did not respond on Thursday to a request for comment.

Mr. Assange has refused to comply with the extradition order, saying he fears that once in Swedish or British custody, he could be sent on to the United States to face charges over publication of classified material.

He fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London's Knightsbridge neighborhood in June 2012. Ecuador granted him asylum in August of that year, but he has been unable to leave the building without facing arrest. Diplomatic protocol prevents the British authorities from entering the embassy to arrest him.

Mr. Assange's petition to the United Nations working group — which was prepared by a team of lawyers led by the Spanish jurist and human rights advocate Baltasar Garzón — described his life in the embassy as claustrophobic and unhealthful, noting that he lacked regular access to fresh air, sunlight or medical care.

"He is subjected to a continuous and pervasive form of round-the-clock surveillance, and he resides in a constant state of legal and procedural insecurity," his lawyers wrote.

Mr. Assange's appeal also cited the prosecution and imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, a former United States Army soldier who was the main source for WikiLeaks, and who was sentenced to 35 years in prison, as an example of his "likely fate" should he be extradited to the United States.

[Source: By Sewell Chan and Liam Stack, The New York Times, 04Feb16]

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