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Why the UN ruled Julian Assange is being “arbitrarily detained," and why it matters

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy where he continues to seek asylum following an extradition request from Sweden in 2012, on February 5, 2016, in London, England.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy where he continues to seek asylum following an extradition request from Sweden in 2012, on February 5, 2016, in London, England.
Carl Court/Getty Images

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange might live in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but he considers himself to be unlawfully "detained" because a Swedish rape charge and the UK government's promise to arrest him and extradite him to Sweden prevent him from leaving the embassy. So in 2014, he appealed to a United Nations human rights body, asking it to rule on whether this "detention" by the UK and Swedish governments is legal.

The UN ruling has just come back, and the UN has sided with Assange. It's not legally binding — the UK isn't now required to let him go free, and has explicitly stated that it won't — but Assange is likely hoping this will help him build a larger case for one day convincing the UK it should let him leave the embassy where he's lived since 2012.

What is this all about?

Assange fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012, when he was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorian government. If he leaves the embassy, he will be arrested by British police and likely extradited to Sweden to face a rape charge. The rape allegation stems from a woman's claim that Assange had sex with her when she was asleep.

Assange denies the rape allegation and claims he is being targeted because of his work with WikiLeaks. He believes the Swedish government intends, in turn, to extradite him to the United States to face prosecution for releasing thousands of classified US military documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars in July and October 2010, as well as a video purportedly showing a US helicopter shooting civilians in Iraq. So, to him, this is political persecution.

Assange and his supporters, including Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, argue he will not receive a fair trial in the US. So Correa agreed to grant Assange asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London so that the British couldn't arrest him and extradite him to Sweden, and potentially on to the US.

Thus, since Assange can't leave the embassy without risking all this happening, he believes he is being detained because he is hiding out in the Ecuadorian embassy, in this view, in order to avoid being detained.

Why did a UN panel issue a ruling on this, and what did it say?

Assange obviously would like to leave the embassy where he's been living for several years, so he and his supporters are trying to build up international support in order to pressure the British government to let him leave without being arrested.

As part of this effort, Assange and his lawyers in 2014 appealed to the UN human rights body in charge of determining whether individuals imprisoned around the world are being detained lawfully, asking them to examine his case and issue a ruling. Assange said he would surrender to British authorities if the UN panel ruled against him.

The UN body, officially called the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, was established in 1991 and, as noted by the BBC, has since made hundreds of rulings on whether imprisonment or detention is lawful. High-profile complainants include Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was released by Iran last month, and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In other words, it's a body whose decisions, although not legally binding, carry weight internationally.

The panel examined Assange's case, hearing statements from Assange as well as from the UK and Swedish governments, and ultimately ruled in Assange's favor. It found that "the various forms of deprivation of liberty to which Julian Assange has been subjected constitute a form of arbitrary detention."

The UN body "called on the Swedish and British authorities to end Mr. Assange’s deprivation of liberty, respect his physical integrity and freedom of movement, and afford him the right to compensation." In other words, it said that the UK should let him leave the embassy freely.

What impact will the UN ruling have?

Assange issued a statement in which he called the panel's decision "legally binding." But the British and Swedish governments are not required to accept the ruling if they don't want to — and they really, really don't want to. The British foreign secretary called the ruling "ridiculous," and London's Metropolitan Police said Assange will still be arrested if he leaves the embassy.

By calling the decision "legally binding" and emphasizing the authority of the UN panel, Assange is hoping both to show that his claim that he's being unlawfully detained is legitimate and to raise the stakes for the British and Swedish governments for continuing to seek his arrest and extradition.

Assange warned the UK and Swedish governments that there would be serious consequences for rejecting the UN ruling. And in a celebratory speech given later from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange told the crowd that his legal team would now examine if there were "criminal consequences" for the parties that he said continue to deny him his freedom.

Assange is hoping that British authorities will decide that arresting and extraditing him isn't worth the cost of looking bad on the international stage, and finally just let him go.

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