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U.N. panel to rule Assange’s 3½-year stay in Ecuadorian Embassy ‘unlawful’: report

Reuters, AFP-JIJI

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s 3½-year stay in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London amounts to “unlawful detention,” a United Nations panel examining his appeal will rule on Friday, the BBC reported.

Assange, a former computer hacker who has been holed up in the embassy since June 2012, told the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that he was a political refugee whose rights had been infringed by being unable to take up asylum in Ecuador.

Reuters was unable immediately to confirm the BBC report and the U.N. said the panel’s opinion, which is not legally binding, was due to be published on Friday. The British police said Assange would face arrest if he leaves the embassy.

The Australian, who jumped bail to take refuge in the embassy, is wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape in 2010, which he denies.

“Should the U.N. announce tomorrow that I have lost my case against the United Kingdom and Sweden, I shall exit the embassy at noon on Friday to accept arrest by British police as there is no meaningful prospect of further appeal,” Assange said in a statement posted on the Wikileaks Twitter account.

“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.”

Assange, 44, has been holed up in the embassy in west London since 2012 in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden over rape allegations, charges he has denied.

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

Separately, the Australian fears he could eventually face extradition to the United States to be put on a trial over the leak of hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents by his anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.

Assange founded 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, U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for breaches of the Espionage Act.

WikiLeaks has said Sweden’s handling of his case has left a “black stain” on the country’s human rights record.

In September 2014, Assange filed a complaint against Sweden and Britain to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, claiming his confinement in the embassy amounts to illegal detention.

In his submission to the U.N. working group, a body of outside experts, Assange argued that his time in the embassy constituted arbitrary detention.

Assange says he is the victim of a witch hunt directed by the United States and that his fate is a test case for freedom of expression.

He said that he had been deprived of his fundamental liberties, including lack of access to sunlight or fresh air, adequate medical facilities, as well as legal and procedural insecurity.

Per Samuelson, one of Assange’s Swedish lawyers, said if the U.N. panel judged Assange’s time in the embassy to be custody, he should be released immediately.

“It is a very important body that would be then saying that Sweden’s actions are inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights. And it is international common practice to follow those decisions,” Samuelson told Reuters.

Since Assange’s confinement, WikiLeaks has continued to publish documents on topics such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the world’s biggest multinational trade deals, which was signed by 12 member nations on Thursday in New Zealand.

Any decision by the U.N. group would not be legally binding, but Justice for Assange claims its rulings influenced the release from detention of prominent figures, including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was held by Iran for 18 months.

A divisive figure, Assange has likened his confinement in the embassy, where he lives in a small room divided into an office and a living area, to living in a space station.

Previously he lived in the more impressive surroundings of an English country mansion owned by one of his supporters, documentary maker Vaughan Smith.