Who is Julian Assange?
The 44-year-old Australian national is the founder of WikiLeaks, a website he started in 2006 as a platform for whistleblowers to release anonymous documents. He became a household name in 2010 when his website released classified information about the US military — the most controversial was footage showing US soldiers intentionally shooting dead 18 civilians, including a Reuters reporter, from a helicopter in Iraq.
Why is he holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London?
In August 2010, while Assange was in Sweden to deliver a lecture in Stockholm, two women alleged he had sexually assaulted them. One woman said she had been raped, while the other claimed she had been sexually molested and coerced. Assange, who had by then left the country, denied the claims and said both sexual encounters were consensual. He alleged the claims were part of a wider campaign to malign him and his website. Following the statements from the women, Sweden launched an investigation and Assange was detained in London after Sweden issued an international warrant against him via Interpol.
After his arrest and subsequent bail, he tried fighting extradition by application in various British courts. However, the British Supreme Court in June 2012 denied his final appeal to avoid extradition to Sweden. Soon after being turned down by the Supreme Court, Assange was given refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy where he stayed until he was granted political asylum by that country two months later. The UK made it clear that if he steps out of the embassy complex, he will be arrested. Downing Street insisted it will not allow him “safe passage” to fly to Ecuador.
Why is Assange afraid of extradition?
He alleges that Sweden was going to further extradite him to the United States, where he would face charges over releasing classified US documents and files, including the footage showing US soldiers shooting dead civilians in Iraq. The US government claims that the information leaked by WikiLeaks puts the lives of its forces at risk. Sweden, however, insists it only wants Assange to try him for the rape charge, and not for further extradition.
So why is Ecuador in a diplomatic face-off against the UK, Sweden and possibly the US over the arrest and extradition of an Australian citizen?
Assange has always had good ties with Ecuador and its leaders. A few months before his arrest, he had interviewed Ecuador President Rafael Correa, during which Correa welcomed him to “the club of the persecuted”. Ecuador had also expelled its US ambassador Heather Hodges after a cable released by WikiLeaks in April 2011 had shown that Hodges had said President Correa was aware of charges of corruption against a top police official when the latter was promoted.
Why did the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention get involved in this?
Assange had in 2014 written to the panel claiming he was being “arbitrarily detained” in the small embassy building without any access to fresh air, sunlight or space to move around. Though he denies it, there have been several media reports that said Assange was in poor health. Ecuador had also sought assurance from the UK that it would not arrest him if they tried to take Assange to a hospital about a suspected lung infection.
What are the reasons for the UN ruling?
The primary basis for the findings listed in the report has been the Swedish government’s inability to question Assange in the UK, as he has repeatedly sought. The findings question why no arrangement could be worked out to question him via videoconferencing. The UN panel also said the methods used in the prolonged case are “disproportionate” and that Assange had been denied human, civil and political rights. The findings said his “illegal” detention should be brought to an end, and Assange and the Ecuador government financially compensated.
Are the findings binding?
No. Both the British and the Swedish governments have refused to accept the findings. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the ruling was “ridiculous” and it changed nothing about UK’s stand. “… The UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden,” the Foreign Office said. Metropolitan police said if Assange steps out of the embassy, he would still be arrested.
What happens now?
Assange looked jubilant after the ruling as he addressed reporters and his supporters from the balcony of the embassy, saying he felt “vindicated”. “The lawfulness of my detention is now a matter of settled law,” he said. However, other than a moral upper hand, Assange may not have gained much. Though a significant loss of face for the UK and Sweden, the ruling is nothing more than a moral defeat. The status quo of the stand-off at the embassy is expected to remain the same as neither side is expected to soften the stand it has taken for the past three years.