A United Nations panel has decided that Julian Assange’s three-and-a-half years in the Ecuadorian embassy amount to “arbitrary detention”, the Guardian understands, leading his lawyers to call for the Swedish extradition request to be dropped immediately.
Assange had appealed to the UN working group on arbitrary detention in 2014, arguing that he was illegally confined to the embassy because he risks arrest if he leaves. The WikiLeaks founder sought asylum from Ecuador in July 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning over rape and sexual assault allegations.
The panel’s findings were disclosed to the Swedish and British governments on 22 January, and will be published tomorrow.
Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Per Samuelson, said if the working group found in his favour, “there is only one solution for Marianne Ny [the Swedish prosecutor seeking Assange’s extradition], and that is to immediately release him and drop the case”. Samuelson added: “If he is regarded as detained, that means he has served his time, so I see no other option for Sweden but to close the case.”
Assange’s lawyers also demanded assurances from the UK that he would not be arrested and subjected to potential extradition to the US, which he fears.
The British Foreign Office said it would not pre-empt the panel’s findings, but said in a statement: “We have been consistently clear that Mr Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorian embassy.
“An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European arrest warrant in place, so the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden.”
Anna Ekberg, a spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry, said it would not comment ahead of the formal publication on Friday.
Assange has said that if the panel finds against him, he will voluntarily leave the embassy and accept arrest, “as there is no meaningful prospect of further appeal. However, should I prevail and the state parties be found to have acted unlawfully, I expect the immediate return of my passport and the termination of further attempts to arrest me.”
It is not clear if Assange has any knowledge of the findings of the UN investigation, which concluded on 4 December.
The Metropolitan police have said they will make “every effort” to arrest Assange should he leave the embassy, and it is not clear if the panel findings will have any bearing on this position.
Outside the embassy on Thursday there was one police car and a growing media presence. A source familiar with the UN working group told the Guardian that if the Swedish or British governments ignored its decision, “it would make it very difficult for them to make use of UN human rights council decisions in the future to bring pressure on other countries over human rights violations – the ruling sends a strong political message”.
Assange has not been charged with any offence, but has been sought for questioning in Sweden in relation to sexual assault allegations made against him by two women.
The appeal was a last-ditch legal attempt by Assange to get a ruling that he is being arbitrarily and unlawfully detained. It rests on a challenge to the European extradition system, his inability to access the benefit of the grant of asylum byEcuador, and what he argues is his long-term detention.
The submission to the UN was launched with little fanfare. Assange said in a statement that the UN encourages the adjudicators to carry out its task with “discretion, objectivity and independence” and that the UK and Swedish governments had submitted their responses to the working group confidentially.
Assange’s statement that he would leave the embassy if the panel found against him will have come as a surprise to many observers, coming at the end of a lengthy diplomatic wrangle between Sweden and Ecuador to allow him to be questioned at the Ecuadorian embassy by Swedish prosecutors.
An agreement was finally reached late last year, and the South American nation’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, told the Ecuadorian radio station Publica that the country was accepting Sweden’s request to interrogate Assange “as long as the sovereignty of the Ecuadorian state and the laws in the constitution are respected”. Permission had been granted by the British authorities in June.
Samuelson said his client still hoped to clear his name. “If he is regarded detained I take it for granted that Marianne Ny and Swedish authorities will respect that decision and instantly cancel the decision to keep Mr Assange in custody,” he told the Guardian.
“This does not mean that the question of interrogation will be over. We still want an interrogation to take place so that Mr Assange can clear his name and show everyone that he is innocent.
“The difference is that he will no longer be in custody in absentia and thus be able to use his asylum outside of the embassy. If Assange is regarded as detained he has already served the time, so to speak, so Marianne Ny should drop the case altogether.”
The WikiLeaks founder had raised repeated concerns about Swedish demands that he be questioned in person over the allegations, due to fears he may be extradited to the US. A grand jury investigation is still believed to be under way in the US following WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan war diary and United States diplomatic cables.
Swedish authorities have come under scrutiny for their approach to questioning him.
They said in August 2015 they were ceasing their inquiries into two counts of alleged sexual molestation and one count of alleged unlawful coercion, with the offences reaching their statute of limitations. A further allegation of rape is still the subject of inquiries.
Assange first entered the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 after mounting a series of legal challenges in the UK to an extradition warrant from Sweden.
The Metropolitan police recently halted permanent patrols outside the embassy, which had been in place since Assange arrived, because they were “no longer proportionate”.
Metropolitan police officers had maintained a constant watch of the embassy in Knightsbridge, close to luxury department store Harrods, at a cost of at least £11.1m to the public purse, according to figures released by Scotland Yard in Junelast year. Covert surveillance is still in place, and in October police rejected a request from the Ecuadorian embassy that Assange be allowed “safe passage” out of the London embassy to a hospital for an MRI scan recommended by his doctor.
The Foreign Office said it would not seek to deny Assange medical treatment but the Metropolitan police reiterated they would arrest the WikiLeaks founder if he left the embassy.
A Met spokesman said: “The operation to arrest Julian Assange does, however, continue and should he leave the embassy the MPS will make every effort to arrest him.”