Assange hopes to walk out of embassy after UN panel ruling

2016-02-05 06:28
Demonstrators hold banners outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. (AP)

Demonstrators hold banners outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. (AP)

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London/Stockholm - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he hoped a UN panel's decision expected on Friday could lead to the end of his self-imposed confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy in London over a rape allegation in Sweden.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) is expected to declare that his three-and-a-half years stuck in a cramped embassy office amount to illegal detention, the Swedish foreign ministry and Assange's lawyers said on Thursday.

Assange, an Australian national who has been holed up at the embassy since June 2012 to avoid arrest, said he expects the British police to call off their attempts to detain him if the panel rules in his favour.

"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," Assange said in a statement.

But Sweden's prosecution authority said the ruling had no impact on its investigation into a 2010 rape allegation against him, and the British government said it would have to arrest him as long as a European arrest warrant was in force.

The ruling comes after WikiLeaks filed a complaint against Sweden and Britain to the UN group in September 2014, claiming his confinement in the embassy was unlawful.

The Swedish foreign ministry said the government had received a copy of the panel's conclusions.

"We can only note that the working panel has come to another conclusion than Swedish judicial authorities," a ministry spokesperson told AFP.

Supporters rally

Assange founded anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in 2006, and its activities - including the release of 500 000 secret military files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 250 000 diplomatic cables - have infuriated the United States.

The main source of the leaks, US Army soldier Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for breaches of the Espionage Act.

The UN group's report is due to be published at 08:00 GMT.

Assange's legal team will hold a press conference in London at which the 44-year-old himself "will be present" on Friday at 12:00 GMT, WikiLeaks said in a statement, which did not detail if he would take part via video-link.

Christophe Marchand, one of his lawyers from the Brussels-based law firm Jus Cogens, told AFP he hoped Britain would "endeavour to free Assange" after the ruling.

As news of the latest development filtered through, British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood visited Assange at the embassy in London's elite Knightsbridge district.

A small group of supporters also gathered outside the building, holding up protesters reading: "Free Assange" and "The Truth Must Never Be Silenced".

Rulings by the UN group are not legally binding, although the Justice for Assange support group claimed its rulings have influenced the release of prominent figures including Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed.

Swedish prosecutors said on Thursday the panel's ruling "has no formal significance for the ongoing investigation under Swedish law".

They are keen to make headway in the case that has been deadlocked for nearly five years by questioning Assange.

He has denied the allegations against him.

Fears of US extradition 

Assange sought refuge in the embassy in June 2012 to avoid arrest and extradition to Sweden, amid fears he could eventually be extradited to the US to be tried over the publication of the classified military and diplomatic documents.

Ecuador has granted him asylum, but he has faced immediate arrest if he steps onto British soil and for years police were posted around the clock outside at a cost of millions of pounds.

In October last year, British police ended the 24-hour guard outside the embassy, but said they would strengthen a "covert plan" to prevent his departure.

The British government said it was still under an obligation to arrest him.

"We have been consistently clear that Mr Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest," a spokesperson said.

"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."

Read more on:    wikileaks  |  julian assange  |  ecuador  |  uk  |  us  |  sweden

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