WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange May Be About to Taste Fresh Air (Or Not)

February 4, 2016, 11:50 AM UTC
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on a screen speaking via web cast from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London during an event on the sideline of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council session on March 23, 2015 in Geneva. Assange took refuge in June 2012 in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of rape and sexual molestation, which he strongly denies. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini — AFP/Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy for more than three years, but he may be about to walk out. However, that’s no certainty.

Assange is taking refuge in the embassy because he does not want to be arrested by British police for extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over rape allegations. He fears Sweden would pass him over to the U.S., where he would probably be charged over the leaks of military documents and video footage.

Following a complaint by Assange in 2014, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is due to announce Friday whether it thinks Assange is in effect being “arbitrarily detained,” in contravention of his human rights.

The BBC reported Thursday morning that the panel has indeed found in Assange’s favor. Just hours before, the Australian tweeted that he would leave the embassy and face arrest if the panel found against him:

Buzzfeed subsequently also reported that the Swedish government had confirmed the panel’s decision.

If the panel backs him up as reported, that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.K. government will agree to let him taste fresh air without fear of arrest. The UN arguably doesn’t have that kind of authority — even though the ruling would be a major embarrassment, effectively implicating the U.K. and Sweden in human-rights abuses.

WikiLeaks has already embarrassed the U.S. government through its publication of thousands of secret documents and files. The most gruesome was arguably the “Collateral Murder” footage that showed an American Apache helicopter killing a Reuters employee and others in Baghdad, but the whistleblowing conduit also released vast reams of diplomatic cables that shone light onto the activities of governments around the world.

It even published the emails and documents that hackers stole from Sony Pictures Entertainment, claiming they belonged in the public domain.

For more on the Sony hack, watch:

Whether or not Assange is a prisoner is a matter of intense debate — legal experts say he is not, and many argue he should go and face questioning over those rape allegations, no matter how valuable his work has been. Either way, he claims his confinement has had a negative effect on his health.

Swedish prosecutors recently agreed to question him in the embassy rather than demanding he go to Sweden, and sent a formal request for the interview in mid-January.

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As for the U.K. government, it’s refusing to comment on the UN panel’s findings until they are revealed, but doesn’t sound in any mood to compromise.

“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,” a government spokesperson said. “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 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing. However, it tweeted a video of representative Christophe Peschoux insisting the ruling would be legally binding.

This article was updated to note the reported confirmation of the panel’s ruling by the Swedish government, and to include the UN’s video tweet. It was also amended to note that Assange has been in the embassy for three rather than five years (the total time since the allegations were made).

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