A UN expert panel said Friday that Britain and Sweden are detaining WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in an unlawful manner and called on the countries to allow the whistleblower to leave his hiding place in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a Geneva-based panel of five independent legal scholars, ruled that the Australian activist had been subject to arbitrary detention ever since his arrest in London in 2010 on Swedish charges of rape and sexual harassment.
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.
"This is a very positive outcome," said Thomas Olsson, a Swedish attorney representing the WikiLeaks founder.
"For the defence this is a very strong argument that the detention should cease immediately," Olsson said, adding Sweden should follow the UN panel's recommendation.
Based on a Swedish arrest warrant on charges 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 in its investigations."
However, there was one dissenting opinion among the panel members. One of the experts "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 formal impact on the ongoing investigation, according to Swedish law."
The authority referred to a May 2015 ruling by the Swedish Supreme Court, that "after examining the facts in the case, decided that Julian Assange should still be detained in his absence."
After the outlines of the panel's decision had been leaked on Thursday, the British Foreign Office said it still felt obliged to extradite Assange to Sweden.