WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be allowed to go free from the Ecuadorian embassy in London and be awarded compensation for what amounts to a three-and-a-half-year arbitrary 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 rape investigation in Sweden.
Both Britain and Sweden denied that Assange was being deprived of freedom, noting he had entered the embassy voluntarily. Britain said it could contest the decision and that Assange would be arrested if he left the embassy.
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 favour, although the decision was not unanimous. Three of the five members on the panel supported a decision in Assange's favour, 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 rape 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.
Assange 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 favour 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, the group 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.
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 2006 for the Iraqi government not to hang former dictator Saddam Hussein, and frequent pleas for the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
"This changes nothing. We completely reject any claim that Julian Assange is a victim of arbitrary detention. The UK has already made clear to the UN that we will formally contest the working group’s opinion," a British government spokesman said.
"He is, in fact, voluntarily avoiding lawful arrest by choosing to remain in the Ecuadorean embassy," the spokesman said. "An allegation of rape is still outstanding and a European Arrest Warrant in place, so the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite him to Sweden."
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.