Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop meets lawyers of Assange, offers consular assistance

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has met lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and offered consular assistance for the Australian, after a United Nations panel ruled he had been arbitrarily detained for almost four years.

Assange, a computer hacker who enraged the United States by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret United States diplomatic cables, has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012 to avoid a rape investigation in Sweden.

The Australian citizen called on Britain and Sweden on Friday to let him freely leave the embassy, after the ruling in his favour by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

"I met with members of the legal team for Julian Assange in London on Thursday afternoon, prior to the release of the report of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention," Ms Bishop said in a statement given to Reuters early on Saturday (Feb 6).

"I have now read the Report and I am seeking legal advice on its implications for Mr Assange, as an Australian citizen. I have confirmed with his lawyers that our offer of consular assistance stands should he require it."

Assange's Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that the meeting with Ms Bishop had been positive. "We have requested they release his passport or immediately issue him a new passport and that Australia take positive steps to help to negotiate the resolution of this case," she said.

The decision marks the latest twist in a tumultuous journey for Assange since he incensed Washington with leaks that laid bare often highly critical US appraisals of world leaders from Vladimir Putin to the Saudi royal family.

In 2010, WikiLeaks released over 90,000 secret documents on the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, followed by almost 400,000 US military reports detailing operations in Iraq. Those disclosures were followed by release of millions of diplomatic cables dating back to 1973.

The UN Working Group does not have the authority to order the release of a detainee - and Friday's ruling in unlikely to change the legal issues facing Assange - but it has considered many high-profile cases and its backing carries a moral weight that puts pressure on governments.