There is a window of hope, thanks to a U.N. human rights body, for a solution to the diplomatic asylum of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, holed up in the embassy of Ecuador in London for the past two and a half years.
Authorities in Sweden, which is seeking the Australian journalist’s extradition to face allegations of sexual assault, admitted there is a possibility that measures could be taken to jumpstart the stalled legal proceedings against Assange.
The head of Assange’s legal defence team, former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, told IPS that in relation to this case “we have expressed satisfaction that the Swedish state“ has accepted the proposals of several countries.
The prominent Spanish lawyer and international jurist was referring to proposals set forth by Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Slovakia and Uruguay.
The final report by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), adopted Thursday Jan. 28 in Geneva, Switzerland, contains indications that a possible understanding among the different countries concerned might be on the horizon.
The UPR is a mechanism of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine the human rights performance of all U.N. member states.
The situation of Assange, a journalist, computer programmer and activist born in Australia in 1971, was introduced in Sweden’s UPR by Ecuador, the country that granted him diplomatic asylum in its embassy in London, and by several European and Latin American nations.
The head of the Swedish delegation to the UPR, Annika Söder, state secretary for political affairs at Sweden’s foreign ministry, told IPS that “This is a very complex matter in which the government can only do a few things.”
Söder said that in Sweden, Assange is “suspected of crimes, rape, sexual molestation in accordance with Swedish law. And that’s why the prosecutor in Sweden wants to conduct the primary investigation.
“We are aware of Mr. Assange’s being in the embassy of Ecuador and we hope that there will be ways to deal with the legal process in one way or the other. But it is up to the legal authorities to respond,” she said.
Assange’s legal defence team complains that Sweden’s public prosecutor’s office is delaying the legal proceedings and refuses to question him by telephone, email, video link or in writing.
Garzón noted that parallel to the lack of action by the Swedish prosecutor’s office, there is a secret U.S. legal process against Assange and other members of Wikileaks, the organisation he created in 2006.
“The origin of the U.S. legal proceedings against Assange was the mass publication by Wikileaks of documents, in many cases sensitive ones, which affected the United States,” said Garzón.
Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other classified U.S. documents revealed practices by Washington that put it in an awkward position with other governments.
Assange sought refuge in the embassy after exhausting options in British courts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning related to allegations of rape and sexual molestation, of which he says he is innocent. He has not been charged with a crime in Sweden and is worried that if he is extradited to that country he will be sent to the United States, where he is under investigation for releasing secret government documents.
If the legal process in Sweden begins to move forward, there would be a possibility for him to be able to leave the Ecuadorean embassy, where he took refuge on Jun. 19, 2012, and give up the diplomatic asylum he was granted by the government of Rafael Correa on Aug. 16, 2012.
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In the UPR report, Sweden promised to examine recommendations made by other countries and to provide a response before the next U.N. Human Rights Council session, which starts Jun. 15.
Garzón has urged the Swedish government to specify a timeframe for the legal action against Assange, as the delegation from Ecuador recommended in the UPR.
“The Human Rights Committee, another specialised U.N. body, stipulates that precise timeframes must be established for putting a detained person at the disposal of a judge,” he pointed out.
Söder told IPS that Sweden’s legal system does not set any deadline for the prosecutor to complete the pretrial examination phase, as reflected in the Assange case.
Garzón is also asking Sweden to introduce, as soon as possible, “measures to ensure that the legal proceedings are carried out in accordance with standards that guarantee the rights of individuals, concretely the right to effective judicial recourse and legal proceedings without undue delays.”
He also called for the adoption of administrative and judicial measures to make investigations before the courts more effective. With respect to this, he mentioned “the practice of measures of inquiry abroad, in line with international cooperation mechanisms.”
In addition, the international jurist demanded measures to ensure that people deprived of their freedom are provided with legal guarantees in accordance with international standards.
The Swedish delegation agreed to study a recommendation by Argentina to “take concrete measures to ensure that guarantees of non-extradition will be given to any person under the control of the Swedish authorities while they are considered refugees by a third country,” in this case Ecuador.
These should include legislative measures, if necessary.
This is important because Assange is facing the threat that the Swedish or British authorities could accept an extradition request from the United States for charges of espionage, which carry heavy penalties.
In his comments to IPS, Garzón said he was “disappointed” that the Swedish state has not accepted one of Ecuador’s recommendations.
He was referring to the request that Sweden streamline international cooperation mechanisms on the part of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office in order to ensure the right to effective legal remedy, specifically in cases where the person is protected by the decision to grant asylum or refuge.
It was stressed in the UPR that the right to asylum or refuge is considered a fundamental right, and must be respected and taken into account, making it compatible with the right to legal defence.
The director-general of legal affairs in Sweden’s foreign ministry, Anders Rönquist, argued that there is no international convention on diplomatic asylum.
The only one referring to that issue is the inter-American convention, he said, adding that the International Court of Justice in The Hague does not require recognition of diplomatic asylum.