Australian foreign minister met Assange lawyers, offers consular assistance

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

Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop looks on during a ministerial meeting regarding the Islamic State group in Rome, Italy, February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Assange, a computer hacker who enraged the United States by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. 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 favor by the U.N. 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,” Bishop said in a statement given to Reuters early Saturday.

“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 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 U.S. appraisals of world leaders from Vladimir Putin to the Saudi royal family.

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

The U.N. 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.

Reporting by Matt Siegel