Credit: Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina, via Wikimedia Commons
In a controversial decision, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has concluded that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s detention, house arrest, and subsequent seclusion in Ecuador’s London embassy constitute arbitrary detention which the governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom should redress. [OHCHR Press Release: Assange] The independent experts’ opinion, released on February 5, 2016, finds violations of Mr. Assange’s rights to due process, liberty, equal protection, and humane treatment in the restrictions imposed on him pending his extradition to Sweden, where authorities want to interview him concerning an allegation of rape made against him in 2010. See WGAD, Opinion No. 54/2015 concerning Julian Assange (Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), UN Doc. A/HRC/WGAD/2015, 4 December 2015. It further recommended that Sweden and the United Kingdom facilitate Mr. Assange’s freedom of movement, end his arbitrary detention, and afford him the right to compensation. [OHCHR Press Release: Assange]
Mr. Assange was first detained for 10 days in isolation at Wandsworth Prison in London, then placed under house arrest for 550 days before he jumped bail and claimed asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom in 2012. [OHCHR Press Release: Assange] The British government had the embassy under 24-hour surveillance for more than three years. Mr. Assange alleged that he is being arbitrarily detained in the embassy by the threat of arrest and extradition to Sweden, which he fears will lead to his extradition to the United States on potential charges related to his work with WikiLeaks. [BBC News; Reuters] Sweden and the United Kingdom argued that Mr. Assange voluntarily restricted himself to the confines of the embassy to evade lawful arrest. [OHCHR Press Release: Assange]
A number of critics have argued that the Working Group’s logic is unconvincing with regard to whether Mr. Assange’s current “self-imprisonment” in the Ecuadorian embassy can be considered a deprivation of liberty, let alone arbitrary detention. [The Guardian: Editorial; EJIL: Talk!; Head of Legal; The Guardian: Opinion] While the British government announced its plans to challenge the opinion, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has released numerous statements publicizing the Working Group’s decision, including a video.
The Working Group’s majority opinion emphasizes the following facts: Mr. Assange has been charged with no crime in Sweden, both governments have failed to recognize that he has been granted asylum by Ecuador, his liberty has been restricted for more than five years in connection with a criminal case that has not moved beyond the pre-investigation stage and in which Mr. Assange has not been afforded appropriate opportunities to participate, he has been denied an opportunity to challenge his ongoing detention, and British law now bars extradition where the person has not been charged with a crime. See WGAD, Opinion No. 54/2015 concerning Julian Assange (Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Read more