A UN panel ruled Friday that the "detention" of Julian Assange should be ended after nearly four years in Ecuador\’s embassy in London, stoking the Wikileaks founder\’s hopes of walking free.
The panel said he should be able to claim compensation from Britain and from Sweden, where he faces questioning over a rape allegation, after being "arbitrarily detained".
The 44-year-old Australian sought refuge in June 2012 in the embassy, in London\’s exclusive Knightsbridge district, to avoid the threat of arrest and extradition to Sweden.
He has lived there in self-imposed confinement ever since in a small office room with a bed, computer, sun lamp, treadmill, and access only to a small balcony.
In a statement, the panel said it had adopted an opinion "in which it considered that Mr. Julian Assange was arbitrarily detained by the Governments of Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."
It added: "The working group also considered that the detention should be brought to an end and that Mr. Assange should be afforded the right to compensation."
Britain and Sweden immediately rejected the panel\’s ruling, which is non-binding.
"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," the government said in a statement.
Sweden\’s "government does not agree with the assessment made by the majority of the Working Group," the foreign ministry in Stockholm said in a letter to the UN panel, adding that the body does not have the right to "interfere in an ongoing case handled by a Swedish public authority".
Assange\’s lawyer in Stockholm, Thomas Olsson, told AFP: "If Sweden expects other countries to abide by UN recommendations, then they must also respect those decisions.
"We can ask the prosecutor for a review of the arrest warrant but we will first let the prosecutor have a chance to show that they respect the UN report," he said.
In a statement Thursday, Assange said that a ruling in his favour should lead to "the immediate return (of) my passport and the termination of further attempts to arrest me".
Assange\’s lawyers are set to hold a press conference at 1200 GMT to respond to the ruling.
Moments before UN panel\’s announcement, Assange told French radio station France Inter that a ruling in his favour would be "a vindication for what I\’ve been saying over the last five years".
He added: "I\’m confident in my argument."
Swedish authorities want to speak to him about a rape allegation whose statute of limitations does not expire until 2020.
But he fears that he could then be sent to the US and face prison there if he gave himself up for questioning.
Wikileaks\’ activities — including the release of 500,000 secret military files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and 250,000 diplomatic cables — have infuriated the US.
The main source of the leaks, US Army soldier Chelsea Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for breaches of the Espionage Act.
Swedish prosecutors have said that the UN panel\’s opinion "has no formal significance for the ongoing investigation under Swedish law."
A hero to some and a dangerous egocentric to detractors, the computer programmer and hacker, whose celebrity supporters include fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and artist Yoko Ono, founded anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in 2006.
Ecuador granted Assange asylum in 2012, and on Thursday President Rafael Correa told a news conference the expected UN decision "shows we were right, after so many years".
Britain has spent millions of pounds maintaining a 24-hour guard outside the embassy to immediately arrest Assange if he set foot on British soil.
The guard was withdrawn last year, but police said they would strengthen a "covert plan" to prevent Assange slipping away.
The decision by the UN panel was made in December but has only now been published.
It follows a complaint by WikiLeaks against Sweden and Britain in September 2014 in which they claimed Assange\’s confinement in the embassy was unlawful and that he was a "political refugee".
Though the panel\’s rulings are not legally binding, the Justice for Assange support group said it had influenced the release of prominent figures including Myanmar\’s Aung San Suu Kyi and former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed.