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UN Panel Demands Release of Julian Assange

(CN) - After more than five years of "indefinite procrastination," the governments of the United Kingdom and Sweden should release WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange from his "arbitrary deprivation of liberty," a United Nations panel said Friday.

"How sweet it is!" Assange exclaimed in recorded remarks from the balcony of London's Ecuadorean embassy, where he has taken asylum. "This is a victory that cannot be denied. It is a victory of historical importance, not just for me, for my family, for my children, but for the independence of the U.N. system."

With the U.K. and Swedish governments rejecting the ruling, however, it remains unclear what immediate effect today's findings by a strong majority of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will have.

Assange's New York-based attorney predicted that the message will help his client in the long term.

"We don't expect it to change the decision overnight, but it increasing the pressure," attorney Carey Shenkman said in a phone interview.

Assange's legal limbo began in late November 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks started publishing U.S. embassy cables leaked by Chelsea Manning.

As the disclosure made global headlines, Interpol released a "red notice" revealing that Swedish law enforcement wanted to question Assange about sexual misconduct allegations by two women.

Assange and his lawyers have long accused Swedish investigators of doing the bidding of U.S. prosecutors eager to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, one of the statutes that eventually landed Manning a 35-year sentence.

After a 10-day stint in London's Wandsworth prison under isolation in December 2010, Assange spent his next 550 days under house arrest in rural British town of Norfolk.

While waiting for Ecuador to process his application for asylum, a request that was eventually granted, Assange holed up in London's Ecuadorean embassy.

For years, Sweden and Assange's lawyers have been at an impasse. Prosecutor Marianne Nye refused to question Assange inside the embassy, and Assange feared that an interview outside the embassy would open him up to arrest and extradition to the United States.

All but one of four members of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Assange's detention must end, in an opinion dated Jan. 22 but released on Friday.

"The Working Group is convinced once again that, among others, the current situation of Mr. Assange staying within the confines of the embassy of the republic of Ecuador in London, United Kingdom, has become a state of an arbitrary deprivation of liberty," the 19-page opinion states.

Basing their decision on five grounds, the panel found that the United Kingdom and Sweden denied Assange the opportunity to provide a statement, deprived him of the presumption of innocence through the length of his detention, and left him with an "absence" judicial review. It also questioned the legality of the European arrest warrant serving as the basis of his detention, and expressed concern about Assange's access to medical equipment inside the embassy.

Assange has reported a lasting pain in his right shoulder, and says that his doctors have been unable to properly examine him because an MRI will not fit into the embassy.

The sole dissenter, former Ukrainian prosecutor Vladimir Tochilovsky, was unmoved.

"In fact, Mr. Assange fled the bail in June 2012 and since then stays at the premises of the embassy using them as a safe haven to evade arrest," Tochilovsky said. "Indeed, fugitives are often self-confined within the places where they evade arrest and detention."

The fifth member of the panel, Australian appointee Leigh Toomey, recused herself from the case and did not issue a ruling because she represents Assange's home country.

Echoing the words of the dissent, the U.K. foreign secretary Phillip Hammond rejected what he described as a "ridiculous" majority ruling in favor of "fugitive from justice," the BBC reported.

Delivering a video statement from the Ecuadorean embassy, Assange blasted Hammond for "insulting" the U.N. panel with "ad hominem" statements that Assange said were made "purely for domestic consumption."

"Put simply, those arguments lost," Assange said. "There is no appeal. The time for appeal is over."

Since the U.K. and Swedish government participated in the U.N. panel's the 16-month long process, Assange's lawyer Carey Shenkman said he was "astonished" by their rhetoric.

"It's kind of odd for them now to shake off the outcome because it didn't go their way," Shenkman said in a phone interview.

He noted that the U.N. Working Group typically takes high-profile cases such as the detention of the former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

It is "quite uncommon" for the panel to rule against Western governments, he added.

"A lot of the cases are kind of the usual suspects: China, Vietnam, Myanmar," Shenkman said. "Countries you typically think of when you think of journalists thrown into a cell."

Shenkman said that the U.K. and Swedish government's current resistance could weaken the system that holds such countries into account, but he expects them to eventually soften their initial reaction to the ruling.

"It might take some time for the dust to settle," he said.

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