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Julian Assange Is Being Arbitrarily Held And Should Be Freed, U.N. Group Says

Journalists work outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since 2012. A U.N. panel says he deserves compensation for being arbitrarily detained.
Carl Court
Getty Images
Journalists work outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since 2012. A U.N. panel says he deserves compensation for being arbitrarily detained.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been "arbitrarily detained" by Sweden and the U.K., a U.N. panel has ruled, adding that Assange should be freed and compensated for his treatment.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calls the situation, in which Assange has lived inside Ecuador's embassy in London for more than three years, a breach of international agreements on both human rights and civil liberties.

"A British government spokesperson disputed the ruling and said it changes nothing," NPR's Leila Fadel reports from London. "The U.K. will formally contest the decision. And Britain will still arrest Assange if he walks out of the embassy because it has a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden."

In the wake of the opinion, WikiLeaks held a news conference. You can watch it below:

Calling in to the news conference from the Ecuadorean Embassy, Assange called the group's finding a "vindication," adding that in the U.N.'s view, the opinion is legally binding on an international level.

"There is no ability to appeal the decision of the United Nations," he said, adding that his status is now "settled law." Assange also said Britain and Sweden cannot dismiss the group's finding simply because it hadn't gone their way.

"It is the end of the road for the legal arguments that have been presented" by the U.K. and Sweden, he said.

On Thursday, Assange announced that he would submit to arrest Friday if the U.N. group's decision went against him. As the Two-Way reported, the BBC said on the same day that it had learned the panel had found in Assange's favor.

The case dates back to December 2010, when British authorities arrested Assange on a warrant issued by Sweden over sexual-assault accusations. He was then put in isolation for 10 days, the U.N. said, before being placed under house arrest for more than a year. In August of 2012, he was granted asylum at Ecuador's embassy in London, where he has remained to avoid being arrested.

Since then, three of four sex-crimes allegations against Assange have expired, due to statutes of limitation. The fourth allegation, of rape, remains.

We've reported that "if Assange is arrested, he could be extradited to the U.S., where he may face trial over WikiLeaks' publication of classified military and diplomatic documents, one of the largest leaks of such information in history. WikiLeaks published materials related to U.S. military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as millions of classified cables from U.S. embassies."

Announcing its opinion, the U.N. group writes:

"The Republic of Ecuador granted asylum because of Mr. Assange's fear that if he was extradited to Sweden, he would be further extradited to the United States where he would face serious criminal charges for the peaceful exercise of his freedoms."

The opinion cites two flaws that it says make Assange's detention arbitrary: His time in isolation in a British prison, and the Swedish prosecutor's "lack of diligence" in handling the sexual misconduct allegations.

Assange and his legal team have complained that because Swedish authorities don't consider his current status one of detention, he cannot file an appeal, making his situation "indefinite."

The U.N. working group lists its members as:

  • Seong-Phil Hong (Republic of Korea) — chairman-rapporteur
  • Leigh Toomey (Australia) — who recused herself because Assange is an Australian national
  • José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez (Mexico)
  • Roland Adjovi Sètondji (Benin)
  • Vladimir Tochilovsky (Ukraine) — who dissented in the case, saying the group had worked beyond its mandate and that Assange had "fled bail in June 2012" and has since evaded arrest in "self-confinement."
  • Read the U.N. panel's 18-page opinion below:

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.