Britain and Sweden have dismissed a UN panel's findings Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is being detained in an unlawful manner.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a panel of independent legal scholars, ruled that the Australian activist had been subject to "arbitrary detention" ever since his arrest in London in 2010 on Swedish allegations of rape and sexual harassment.
The group called on Britain and Sweden to allow the whistleblower to leave his hiding place in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. However, their legal opinion was quickly dismissed by the two countries.
"This is, frankly, a ridiculous finding by the working group and we reject it," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.
Assange fears that an extradition to Sweden could be followed by an extradition to the United States, where he faces a possible life sentence for publishing secret government documents on his WikiLeaks platform.
"The Working Group 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," said Seong-Phil Hong, who heads the panel.
However, Sweden rejected the opinion that Assange was being detained arbitrarily and argued that he runs no risk of extradition to the US because there has been no such request from Washington.
"Assange, voluntarily, has chosen to stay at the Ecuadorian embassy and Swedish authorities have no control over his decision to stay there," Anders Ronquist, the Foreign Ministry's head of legal affairs, wrote to the UN panel.
British chief diplomat Hammond denounced the UN panel's five seasoned scholars as "a group made up of lay people and not lawyers."
"He can come out any time he chooses," Hammond said of Assange. "But he will have to face justice in Sweden if he chooses to do so."
Assange's lawyers said London and Stockholm should heed the UN opinion and let Assange go.
Based on a Swedish arrest warrant on suspicion of sexual misconduct, the Australian whistleblower spent 10 days in isolation in a British prison and was then put under house arrest for 550 days.
Since 2012, he has been staying in the Ecuadorian embassy.
"Since August 2012, Mr. Assange has not been able to leave the Ecuadorian Embassy and is subject to extensive surveillance by the British police," the UN panel noted.
It judged Assange's situation as a form of arbitrary detention because of his initial solitary confinement, and because the lengthy detention was due to a lack of diligence by the Swedish prosecutor.
Sweden could have detained Assange based on preliminary investigations while he was still in the country, said Christophe Peschoux, the UN panel's secretary.
"But now, 5 years later, still no charges have been filed against him," he told reporters in Geneva.
There was one dissenting opinion among the panel members. Ukrainian expert Vladimir Tochilovsky "considered that the situation of Mr Assange is not one of detention and therefore falls outside the mandate of the Working Group," the UN panel said.
Although the ruling is legally binding, the panel has no power to enforce it.
The Swedish Prosecution Authority said the UN panel's statement has no impact its ongoing investigation.