[LONDON] WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will demand that he be allowed to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London a free man, after a UN panel ruled on Friday he was detained arbitrarily there.
Assange, who enraged the United States by publishing hundreds of thousands of secret US diplomatic cables, has been holed up in the embassy since 2012 to avoid a rape investigation.
Assange appealed to the UN panel, saying he was a political refugee whose rights had been infringed by being unable to take up asylum in Ecuador. The panel of five independent experts ruled in Assange's favour on Friday.
The former computer hacker 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.
Britain said it had never arbitrarily detained Assange and that the Australian had voluntarily avoided arrest by jumping bail to flee to the embassy.
Both Sweden and Britain said they would not be bound by the panel's ruling.
But 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 US appraisals of world leaders from Vladimir Putin to the Saudi royal family.
While the ruling - which will be published on Friday - may draw attention to Assange's fate, it is unlikely to immediately affect the current investigations against him.
The UN 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, represented by Amal Clooney, 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 US military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
"We have been consistently clear that Mr Assange has never been arbitrarily detained by the UK 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 UN 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 US 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 US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, followed by almost 400,000 internal US military reports detailing operations in Iraq.
More than 250,000 classified cables from US embassies followed, then almost three million dating back to 1973.