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The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention decision on Assange: ‘ridiculous’ or ‘justifiable’?

Published on February 9, 2016        Author: 

The UN WGAD Assange decision has been met with general ridicule from British officials, legal academics and the press. This piece seeks to bring some balance to the coverage on this decision, which consistently fails to outline the arguments which persuaded the Working Group.

The central argument of Assange’s lawyers’ proceeds on the basis that his confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy ‘cannot … be characterized as volitional’ (para 13). He is not free to leave, because he is protecting himself from the violation of other human rights: ‘the only way for Mr. Assange to enjoy his right to asylum was to be in detention’ (para 11). If Assange were to leave he would be arrested in the UK and extradited pursuant to a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) issued by Sweden. Consequently, he would expose himself to the risk of a ‘well founded fear of persecution’ were he to be extradited to the US from Sweden (para 12). In the words of Assange’s lawyers:

The source submits that Mr. Assange was deprived of his liberty against his will and his liberty had been severely restricted, against his volition. An individual cannot be compelled to renounce an inalienable right, nor can they be required to expose themselves to the risk of significant harm. Mr. Assange’s exit from the Ecuadorian Embassy would require him to renounce his right to asylum and expose himself to the very persecution and risk of physical and mental mistreatment that his grant of asylum was intended to address. His continued presence in the Embassy cannot, therefore, be characterised as ‘volitional’ (para 13).

Assange’s lawyers moves on to the failure of the Swedish authorities to pursue their investigation through less restrictive means. Simply put, the Swedish authorities have ‘not established a prima facie case’ and have refused ‘unreasonably and disproportionately’ to ‘question him through alternative means offered under the process of mutual assistance’ (para 13). Furthermore, they argue that Assange has been deprived of the opportunity to know the case against him, to provide a statement regarding the charges against him, and thus to defend himself against the charges. This combination of factors thus also bears upon the principle of audi alterum partem and the presumption of innocence. The cumulative result of all of these conditions, and the failure to guarantee non-refoulement to the US, have resulted in a situation in which, on Assange’s argument, he has in effect been arbitrarily detained. Read the rest of this entry…