WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be allowed to go free from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and awarded compensation for what amounts to a three-and-a-half-year detention, a U.N. panel ruled on Friday.
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 embassy since June 2012 to avoid a criminal investigation in Sweden.
Both Britain and Sweden denied that Assange was being deprived of freedom, noting he had entered the embassy voluntarily.
Assange, an Australian, appealed to the U.N. panel, whose decision is not binding, saying he was a political refugee whose rights had been infringed by being unable to take up asylum in Ecuador.
It ruled in his favor, though the decision was not unanimous. Three of the five members on the panel supported a decision in Assange’s favor, with one dissenter and one recusing herself.
“The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considers that the various forms of deprivation of liberty to which Julian Assange has been subjected constitute a form of arbitrary detention,” the group’s head, Seong-Phil Hong, said in a statement.
“(It) maintains that the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to compensation.”
Assange, 44, denies allegations of a 2010 crime in Sweden, saying the charge is a ploy that would eventually take him to the United States where a criminal investigation into the activities of WikiLeaks is still open.
Sweden said it has no such plans.
Before the ruling, Assange, 44, said in a short statement posted on social media: “Should I prevail and the state parties be found to have acted unlawfully, I expect the immediate return of my passport and the termination of further attempts to arrest me.”
He had said that if he lost the appeal then he would leave his cramped quarters at the embassy in the Knightsbridge area of London, though Britain said he would be arrested and extradited to Sweden as soon as he stepped outside.
The decision in his favor marks the latest twist in a tumultuous journey for Assange since he incensed Washington with his leaks that laid bare often highly critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders from Vladimir Putin to the Saudi royal family.
While the ruling may draw attention to Assange’s fate, it is unlikely to immediately affect the current investigations against him.
The U.N. Working Group does not have the authority to order the release of a detainee, but it has considered many high-profile cases and its backing carries a moral weight that puts pressure on governments.
Recent high-profile cases submitted to the U.N. panel include that of jailed former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed and of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, an Iranian American jailed in Iran until a prisoner swap last month.
But governments have frequently brushed aside its findings such as a ruling on Myanmar’s house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 2008, a call in 2008 for the Iraqi government not to hang former dictator Saddam Hussein, and frequent pleas for the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
“We have been consistently clear that Mr. Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the U.K. but is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy,” a British government spokeswoman said.
Swedish prosecutors said the U.N. decision had no formal impact on the rape investigation under Swedish law. A U.S. Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks is ongoing.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was unclear what impact “a pronouncement from the United Nations would have on the situation.”
“But, you know, but he’s facing serious charges inside of Sweden,” Earnest said.
Assange said that he had been deprived of fundamental liberties including access to sunlight and fresh air, adequate medical facilities and legal and procedural security.
Since he sought refuge in the small embassy, British media have reported, Assange has suffered from an irregular heartbeat, a chronic cough and high blood pressure.
Assange made international headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters that killed a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.
Later that year, the group released over 90,000 secret documents detailing the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, followed by almost 400,000 internal U.S. military reports detailing operations in Iraq.
More than 250,000 classified cables from U.S. embassies followed, then almost three million dating back to 1973.