On the 5th of February the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention argued that Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, had been subject to arbitrary deprivation of liberty and should be allowed to walk free. There is just one problem with this judgement: Mr. Assange isn’t being deprived of his liberty by the British Government, and he’s perfectly free to leave his self-made prison.
To explain, Julian Assange is the founder of the whistle-blowing service, Wikileaks, which published a huge number of confidential diplomatic documents and cables belonging to several governments. Assange is currently hiding as a refugee in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been since 2012. The reason Julian Assange is still inside the Ecuadorian Embassy is because since 2012 the UK Supreme Court has upheld a request for extradition to Sweden, where the authorities want to question him on allegations of rape. Mr. Assange claims the encounter was entirely consensual, and sought refuge in the embassy to avoid questioning. The moment Assange steps outside, the Metropolitan Police will arrest him. In short, he is detained inside of the embassy of his own free will. He could leave at any time, but does not want to, because he is a fugitive from justice.
This simple fact seems to have gone over the heads of the lawyers of the UN’s working group, who have ignored the truth that Assange has placed himself under house arrest. Of course, it’s hardly a surprise that the Working Group ruled in his favour: it has ruled in favour of the detainee in the majority of its 1,325 cases. What’s bizarre is that of the 5 experts in human rights law who wrote the opinion, only one dissented, proving that the cleverest and best educated of people are also sometimes the stupidest.
The statement by the UN isn’t just absurd, but also dangerous. It gives succour to those who defend Assange by disregarding the allegation of rape out of hand. For these people (who seemingly congregate on the Guardian’s comment section), the man and his political activities are inseparable. The activities Wikileaks engaged in were virtuous, so the founder himself must be virtuous. They claim that their noble hero is the victim of a government conspiracy, that this accusation is merely a ploy to get Assange shipped off to the US, where he will face punishment for the leaking of sensitive state secrets. The truth, however, is that the reason Swedish authorities want to question him is entirely unrelated to his activities at Wikileaks. If Assange is innocent, he should go to Sweden and prove that innocence. If he were to be charged while in Sweden, it’s hardly as if he wouldn’t receive a fair trial. Instead, however, he has shamefully chosen to evade questioning by hiding away under diplomatic immunity, while the police guard outside costs the British taxpayer £10,000 a day.
Even worse, the media frenzy caused by the UN statement – and Assange’s subsequent appearance on the balcony of the embassy for the awaiting press corps – has served to obscure the true victim of Wikileaks’ whistle-blowing. Chelsea Manning is currently serving a 35 year sentence in the US for leaking documents while she was a private in the US Army. The documents revealed that the US committed potential human rights violations in its operations in Iraq. For this she was held for 11 months in solitary confinement in her pre-trial detention, prevented from using a public interest defence at her trial, and ultimately overcharged for her ‘crime’. If anyone has been subjected to deprivation of liberty, it is Chelsea Manning, who should rightfully be a free woman.
Luckily the statement issued by the UN regarding Assange is not legally binding. Therefore, when Assange inevitably crawls out of hiding, the Met will arrest him in order for him to face Swedish prosecutors for questioning. His extradition surely can’t come a moment too soon.
Bottom Line: Julian Assange has not been arbitrarily detained, and it's about time he left the embassy.