A United Nations working group, which investigates cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, determined Sweden and the United Kingdom have arbitrarily detained WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange. His due process rights have been violated during his detention.
Assange was detained for alleged sexual offenses. He was held in isolation in Wandsworth Prison in London for ten days, from December 7 to December 16 in 2010. He was then detained under house arrest for 550 days. He entered the Ecuadorean embassy and was granted asylum in 2012.
The editor-in-chief praised the decision by the U.N. working group and suggested the lawfulness of his detention is now a matter of “settled law.” He said the U.K. and Sweden had their opportunity to appeal the determination of the group and decided not to appeal.
“It is now the task of the states of Sweden and the United Kingdom, as a whole, to implement the verdict,” Assange added.
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is empowered by the U.N. Human Rights Council of which both the U.K. and Sweden are members. Both the U.K. and Sweden, as signatories to the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are obligated to respect the decision.
However, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the U.K. government protested the outcome.
“This changes nothing. We completely reject any claim that Julian Assange is a victim of arbitrary detention. The U.K. has already made clear to the U.N. that we will formally contest the working group’s opinion,” the government stated.
The Office further declared, “Julian Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the U.K. The opinion of the U.N. Working Group ignores the facts and the well-recognized protections of the British legal system. He 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 UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden. As the U.K. is not a party to the Caracas Convention, we do not recognize ‘diplomatic asylum’.”
Sweden also rejected the outcome. “Mr Assange is free to leave the Embassy at any point. Thus, he is not being deprived of his liberty due to any decision or action taken by the Swedish authorities.”
But Spanish jurist Baltasar Garzón, who advised Assange to submit his case to the U.N. group about 16 months ago, insisted, “All state members have the duty to cooperate and collaborate with the U.N. working groups. Both Sweden and the UK had accepted the collaboration, and they had the opportunity to submit their arguments during this procedure.”
“They had opportunity to respond to all of the points of the application filed by the Assange lawyers,” Garzón added. “It seems absurd that now the decision is against them—when they have participated through the whole process—that now they are saying this is not a valid decision. By the application of the Vienna Convention and the law of treaties, they have the duty to respect this decision. It is imperative that they respect this decision.”
Specifically, the U.N. group decided Assange “has not been guaranteed the international norms of due process and the guarantee to a fair trial during these three different moments: the detention in isolation in Wandsworth Prison, the 550 days under house arrest, and the continuation of the deprivation of liberty in the Embassy of the Republic of Ecuador in London, United Kingdom.”
The group also determined the stay at the Ecuadorean embassy has “prolonged” the deprivation of liberty he has endured. This is in “breach of principles of reasonableness, necessity, and proportionality.”
Concern was expressed about Sweden and the U.K’s refusal to recognize that Ecuador had granted asylum. The group also objected to the extensive surveillance imposed on Assange by British police.
Melinda Taylor, an attorney for Assange, reacted, “Detention is not about bricks and mortars and bars. What matters is if you are severely deprived of your liberty.”
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a jail in the desert in Libya or in the Ecuadorean embassy. If you have no effective freedom, if you are subjected to 24/7 covert and overt police confinement and surveillance, then you are detained and you are entitled to the rights and protections of detainees. Yet, Sweden and the United Kingdom just simply refuse to acknowledge that—that detention by any other name is still detention,” Taylor added.
The decision was not unanimous. One member, Vladimir Tochilovsky of Ukraine, objected and contended “issues related to fugitives’ self-confinement, such as asylum and extradition, do not fall into the mandate of the Working Group.” He is the longest-serving member of the group.
The U.K. and Sweden had two months to take advantage of this objection and challenge the U.N. group, but despite Tochilovsky’s objection, the countries still did not appeal.
The group outlined its concerns about the Swedish prosecution and how the “only basis” of depriving Assange of his freedom seems to be an issued European Arrest Warrant. It questioned the fact that Assange has not been “formally indicted in Sweden,” and determined the refusal to allow him to examine “all the investigation material,” upon which allegations are based, has been a violation of his rights.
The group further articulated the numerous ways in which “due diligence” on the part of Sweden and the U.K. has not been exercised. To paraphrase:
- More than five years later, the case remains in its preliminary phase “with no predictability” as to when a formal judicial proceeding may occur
- Sweden has not acted proportionally and sufficiently explored alternative ways to “administer justice”
- Assange has continued to express his willingness to cooperate with the criminal investigation
- The states allowed his situation to become “both excessive and unnecessary”
- Assange’s fear of prosecution, as well as the granted asylum, should have been more fully considered by Sweden and the U.K. Instead, it was deemed irrelevant.
- And: “It defeats the purpose and efficiency of justice and the interest of the concerned victims to put this matter of investigation to a state of indefinite procrastination.”
Furthermore, the working group confirmed Assange is suffering arbitrary detention in the Ecuadorean embassy because he has been “denied the opportunity to provide a statement” and defend himself against allegations, which is part of the rights of anyone who is accused of a crime. The length of his detention is “incompatible with the presumption of innocence” in criminal cases. The Ecuadorean embassy is not equipped for “prolonged pretrial detention and lacks appropriate medical equipment or facilities.”
Plus, domestically in the U.K., the law surrounding European Arrest Warrants has changed to an extent that Assange’s extradition would not be permitted today. However, the U.K. refuses to “retroactively” apply the changes to Assange’s case.” All of which ensures Assange will continue to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy indefinitely.
As Taylor declared, “This ruling dispels the myth that either Assange is a fugitive from justice or that he could just walk out of the embassy.”
“It is a damning indictment of the matter in which this case has been handled. It further affirms that Mr. Assange is a victim of a significant miscarriage of justice that is attributable to the action and inaction of Sweden and the United Kingdom. It further emphasizes Julian Assange’s continued willingness to cooperate with the investigations in this case at all stages of the procedure,” Taylor added.
“It is time for both governments (Britain and Sweden) to correct their mistake, time for them to allow Julian Assange his freedom, time for them to end this arbitrary detention and furthermore compensate the damage done to this man,” Ecuador Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño stated.
Full press conference with Julian Assange and his attorneys and other representatives.