WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for three and a half years, is a victim of “unlawful detention,” a United Nations panel is set to declare. The U.N.'s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is expected to officially announce its decision on Friday, but the verdict was first reported by the BBC and then confirmed by the Swedish foreign ministry.
Assange, an Australian national, sought refuge at the embassy in 2012 after losing an appeal to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over 2010 rape allegations. He was granted asylum by the Ecuadorian government in 2012, but he would be arrested by British police if he attempted to leave the embassy building. Due to costs, the bobbies called off their round-the-clock watch at the embassy last year but say they have a “covert plan” to arrest him if he tries to flee.
Assange fears that if arrested, he could be extradited to the United States for prosecution over WikiLeaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents, though no charges have been filed against him in the United States.
Assange, who denies the rape allegations against him, filed an appeal to the U.N. panel in 2014, arguing that he’s the subject of a U.S.-led political witch hunt, and that his lack of access to sunlight and fresh air are a violation of his fundamental rights. Made up of independent legal experts, the U.N.-established panel rules on whether cases of imprisonment are lawful. Previous complainants have included the American journalist Jason Rezaian and Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. On Wednesday, Assange had promised via WikiLeaks’ Twitter account to accept arrest by the British police if the panel ruled against him.
While the British government won't like being put in the same category as governments like Iran and Myanmar, the panel’s decisions are not legally binding. WikiLeaks will argue that the ruling undercuts the case against Assange, but the British and Swedish authorities are unlikely to budge. The U.K. maintains that it is not currently detaining Assange, but that he’s avoiding arrest by refusing to leave the embassy. Swedish prosecutors last year dropped investigations of three of the four allegations against Assange—counts of sexual assault, unlawful coercion, and sexual molestation—after the statute of limitation of five years was passed. Assange has not been formally charged with any crime. In Sweden, the official charging of a suspect comes fairly late in the investigation process. An investigation into an allegation of rape is still ongoing, and the 10-year statute of limitations on that crime won’t run out until 2020.
So while Thursday’s decision may encourage Assange’s supporters, it’s still going to be some time before he can step outside.