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 rape 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 favour, though 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.
Before the ruling, Assange, 44, said in a short statement posted on Twitter: "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 favour 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 closure 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.
Here are key dates in the five-year legal saga of Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
- November 18, 2010:
A Swedish prosecutor issues a European arrest warrant for Assange on sexual assault charges involving two Swedish women. Assange denies the charges, saying the young women consented. WikiLeaks starts releasing more than 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables, revealing often frank assessments of US officials as well as the views of other governments.
- December 7, 2010:
Assange turns himself in to police in London and is placed in custody pending a ruling on the Swedish extradition request. He is later released on bail and calls the Swedish rape allegations a smear campaign. Under the bail conditions, he must live at a supporter's mansion in England.
- February 24, 2011:
A British judge rules that Assange can be extradited to Sweden. In November Britain's High Court rejects an appeal against his extradition. Assange fears Sweden will hand him over to US authorities who could prosecute him for publishing the documents and possibly sentence him to death.
- June 19, 2012:
Assange requests political asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London. He is allowed to stay there by the government in Quito.
- October 25, 2013:
Ecuador demands that Britain allows Assange to fly to Quito.
- July 16, 2014:
A Swedish court upholds the European arrest warrant against Assange.
- August 18, 2014
Assange's lawyer says he will not leave the embassy until it is guaranteed he will avoid extradition to the United States.
- November 20, 2014:
Assange loses an appeal against the arrest warrant.
- September 12, 2014:
Assange files a complaint against Sweden and Britain with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
- February 6, 2015:
WikiLeaks says the cost of policing Assange is £10 million (13 million euros, $14.5 million), the equivalent of 39,000 hospital beds. Police say they spend 11,000 euros a day on surveillance.
- February 25, 2015:
Assange's lawyers ask Sweden's Supreme Court to quash the arrest warrant.
- March 13, 2015:
Swedish prosecutors offer to question Assange in London. He initially accepts, but Quito demands later that an Ecuadorean prosecutor do the questioning.
- February 2, 2016:
Assange says he will turn himself over to British police if the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention rules that he has not been arbitrarily detained.
- February 4, 2016:
The UN panel rules that Assange's confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy amounts to illegal detention, Sweden's foreign ministry says.
All images sourced from Reuters