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UN panel emerges from shadows with bombshell Assange ruling

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was thrust into the global spotlight Friday with its finding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been “arbitrarily detained” by Sweden and Britain.

But while few may until now have been aware of the existence of the obscure panel of independent human rights experts, Friday was not the first time the group has made headlines, having addressed the cases of other prominent figures including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed.

“Each year, thousands of people are arbitrarily detained,” according to the panel, which is flooded with thousands of requests annually to examine the cases of people deprived of their liberty.

Made up of only five independent experts, who serve three-year mandates on a voluntary basis and meet just three times a year, the panel issues decisions on just a few dozen cases each year.

Set up in 1991 by the UN Human Rights Commission, which has since been replaced by the Human Rights Council, the working group says it has issued more than 1,000 opinions concerning more than 130 countries.

States can demand a review of the decision within two months, if they supply new information that challenges the basis for the decision.

According to its mandate, “any individual deprived of liberty can submit his/her case for consideration” to the working group.

To ensure “discretion, objectivity and independence” in the handling of cases, panel members from countries at the centre of an investigation recuse themselves from the case.

An Australian member of the team, Leigh Toomey, therefore did not take part in the deliberations on Assange’s case.

– No consensus ‘very unusual’ –

Usually, the five experts concur on a ruling.

“It is very unusual that there is a decision not based on consensus,” working group secretary Christophe Peschoux told reporters in Geneva.

But that did not happen in the “very complicated” case of the WikiLeaks founder, with Vladimir Tochilovsky of Ukraine dissenting, Peschoux said.

Since the group first met, it has worked tirelessly to shine a light on obscure cases that receive little media attention but it has also on occasion voiced opinions about prominent cases.

In 2001, the experts slammed the “arbitrary detention” of Aung San Suu Kyi, the centrepiece of Myanmar’s long democracy struggle, who was kept under house arrest for 15 years before being finally released six years ago.

Last November, they weighed in on the case of former Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim, condemning his five-year sentence for sodomy.

And in October, they denounced as arbitrary the detention of former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, who is serving a 13-year term on controversial terrorism-related charges.