Last Friday, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a report determining that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s forced stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in London amounted to arbitrary detention. The report claims Assange is entitled to immediate freedom and compensation. Assange has been trapped in the embassy since 2012 in order to escape an extradition warrant issued by the Swedish government on charges of sexual assault and rape. Assange is right to fear extradition to Sweden, a country with an ongoing extradition treaty with the United States despite already dropping three of the four initial charges made against him. This U.N. report is the latest in a long chain of evidence pointing towards an improper abuse of government authority in infringing upon the rights of Assange, an abuse which should not continue.
The U.N. report focuses on Sweden’s unwillingness to press charges after five years as well as the lack of consideration to the possibility of U.S. extradition. While the U.S.- Sweden extradition deal does specifically draw an exception in cases of political offenses and espionage, this does not exclude charges of cyber crime or theft, both of which were brought against Private Chelsea Manning in 2012. There is also precedent for the Swedish government folding to U.S. pressure when it comes to issues of human rights abuses and national security. In 2001, Sweden complied with a U.S. request to hand over two Egyptian asylum seekers to CIA operatives in Egypt, who subsequently tortured the two men. This legal gray area and Sweden’s historical conduct does not lead to much optimism that Assange’s safety will be guaranteed in Sweden.
Assange’s three years confined in the Ecuadorian embassy have caused serious damage to his health, including a chronic lung condition and high blood pressure. The physical toll of his detention amounts to a serious violation of his human rights. The U.N. working group also rightly found the United Kingdom at fault in this episode; the U.K. has spent upwards of $20 million on round-the-clock surveillance of the embassy to prevent Assange’s escape. Even in light of these facts and the public condemnation by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, public officials in the U.K. and Sweden have stubbornly refused to change their position on the issue.
Regardless of what anyone’s opinions are on the positive or negative role that WikiLeaks has on the world, it cannot be contested that Assange’s reservations on extradition are legitimate and the case being made by the Swedish government is dubious at best. The best course of action would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of the U.N.’s ruling and pursue justice in a way that does not include arbitrary detainment of U.S. extradition.
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Email Anand Balaji at [email protected]