On February 5, the United Nation’s highest authority on detention, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), found that our client Julian Assange is being arbitrarily and illegally detained, and is entitled to freedom and compensation. The decision comes after the WikiLeaks founder has spent more than three and a half years in continued detention in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, along with 10 days of imprisonment in Wandsworth Prison and over 500 days of house arrest—even though he has not been charged with a crime.
The WGAD’s decision is a clear victory for Assange, as well as for journalists and whistle-blowers everywhere, who have come under increased attack in recent years. But two weeks after the panel called for an end to his detention, he is not free. He remains confined to the Ecuadorean embassy, a victim of both Sweden and the United Kingdom’s refusal to honor the very human-rights machinery they helped create.
The two countries’ blatant noncompliance—with a process in which they participated—highlights the lengths to which states will go to shut down Assange and WikiLeaks. It also threatens the foundation of the international human-rights system, as well as treaties binding on both countries and the rights of future detained persons. Even the New York Times editorial board opined last week that it is time for the UK and Sweden to “walk away.”
In willfully flouting the decision, both countries argued that Assange cannot be considered “arbitrarily detained” because, they say, he is not actually detained (the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs called it “self-confinement”). Yet, as Assange argued before the WGAD, there is nothing voluntary about his stay in the embassy. He is detained by virtue of the simple fact that he is not free to leave the Ecuadorean Embassy without risking life and limb. If he left, he would be arrested and almost certainly extradited to the United States, where he would face persecution and inhumane treatment.
As confirmed by the Justice Department in federal court in December, the United States has been pursuing an unprecedented investigation of WikiLeaks—one that press freedom organizations have warned could gut the core of the First Amendment. American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero has said it has already had “a profound chilling effect.” This investigation has involved invasive searches and surveillance of WikiLeaks staff, affiliates, and supporters, and the NSA’s placing Assange on a “Manhunting” list with members of terrorist organizations. Indeed, alleged WikiLeaks source Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning was subject to inhumane treatment and solitary confinement, reportedly to force her to implicate Assange.