LONDON — It started more than five years ago as what appeared to be a fairly simple sex crime case: two women in Sweden came forward to accuse Julian Assange of sexual misconduct.
Now the case has mutated into a complicated international drama involving Britain, Sweden, the United States, Ecuador, a host of human rights lawyers and the United Nations.
But when the dust settles from an unexpected U.N. working group's finding Friday that Assange has been unlawfully detained, the painful stalemate is expected to continue, and Assange — though claiming full vindication — will most likely remain cooped up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
The panel said his stay at the embassy — which he entered voluntarily in 2012 — constitutes arbitrary detention and that he should be set free and compensated for lost time.
Lawyer and legal blogger Carl Gardner said the finding "beggars belief" and pointed out it isn't legally binding.
"Nobody will have to do anything," as a result of this finding, he said.
The sex crime allegations came at the height of Assange's fame as the founder of WikiLeaks, an organization that had made a name for itself by releasing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified government documents. He had challenged, and embarrassed, U.S. officials with his disclosures, and feared a secret indictment in U.S. courts that could lead to prosecution there.
One woman said Assange intentionally damaged a condom and pinned her down while having sex. A second woman said Assange had sex with her without a condom while she was asleep. In Sweden, having sex with an unconscious, drunk or sleeping person can lead to a rape conviction punishable by up to six years in prison.
A Swedish investigation into the crimes was launched, then dropped for lack of evidence, and then started again as prosecutors sought to question Assange about possible molestation and rape.
The computer hacker — facing no criminal charges — left Sweden for Britain, and the legal palaver begun.
Once he left, it became much more complicated for Swedish prosecutors to determine if the evidence against him was convincing enough to merit a criminal charge.
When prosecutors decided they needed to question him about the women's allegations, they sought an international arrest warrant for him that was issued in November, 2010.
By then, Assange was in London, where he was seen by many as a hero in a "David versus Goliath" struggle pitting scrappy WikiLeaks against the mighty U.S. government. He was the toast of the town — at least among a group of wealthy friends from the film and media worlds who enjoyed the discomfort he brought to the high and mighty.
The arrest warrant would not go away, however, and Assange surrendered to police in London and was detained until his bail was granted. He got public support from filmmakers Oliver Stone and Michael Moore and human rights activist Bianca Jagger, and spent his time under court-ordered "house arrest" at a luxurious country estate owned by his friend, the journalist Vaughan Smith.
Assange repeatedly said his resistance was based on the overriding fear that once he was in the hands of British or Swedish authorities, he would be extradited to the U.S. to face trial there on charges related to his WikiLeaks work.
He denied the sex charges, and said they were part of a larger conspiracy to land him in a maximum security U.S. prison.
But Assange lost a series of legal attempts to block extradition. His final strategy failed in June, 2012 when Britain's Supreme Court refused his bid to reconsider its earlier rejection of his appeal.
Assange had come to an uncomfortable crossroads: Return to Sweden to answer questions or take radical action to place himself beyond the prosecutors' reach.
On June 19, he took those steps, calmly walking into the Embassy of Ecuador in central London to seek asylum. He's been there ever since, in a prolonged state of legal limbo, unable even to stroll to a corner store.
He occasionally entertained celebrity visitors like actor John Cusack and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, but the flurry of magazine cover stories, books and even films about Assange started to subside as WikiLeaks generated fewer and fewer headlines.
In 2013, it became clearer than ever that his stay inside the embassy was no longer really about the sex crime inquiries when he said he would stay inside even if the investigation was dropped for fear of extradition to the United States.
U.S. officials have not revealed whether there is a secret indictment of Assange in U.S. courts, but in 2015, U.S. government representatives reiterated in court that a "sensitive" law enforcement investigation into WikiLeaks is ongoing.
In March, a U.S. federal court confirmed there are "active and ongoing" attempts to prosecute him and WikiLeaks in an investigation involving espionage, conspiracy, and computer fraud.
Meanwhile, an attempt to question Assange inside the embassy — which would presumably allow Swedish prosecutors to decide whether to pursue or drop the case — has foundered because of sniping between Swedish and Ecuadorean officials.
Last year, Swedish prosecutors dropped the molestation inquiries because of the statute of limitations. But the rape investigation remains open.
The case seemed to be going nowhere until this week when a legal maneuver that had largely gone unnoticed paid big public relations dividends for Assange and his team. They had filed a complaint with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention against Sweden and Britain more than a year earlier charging that he had been unfairly detained.
The five-person board, operating under the auspices of the U.N. human rights chief, investigated, took evidence from both sides, and came out backing Assange's position by a 3-1 vote, with one member deciding not to vote because she, like Assange, is Australian.
Cut to Assange emerging triumphant on the embassy balcony, like Winston Churchill and the royal family at the conclusion of World War II, claiming total victory.
A supporter shouted, "We love you Julian" as he went back inside the embassy — for what might be a very long time. British and Swedish officials said Friday they won't be swayed by the working group's opinion, and it is five more years before the statute of limitations on rape expires.
The lawyer for the Swedish woman who has accused Assange of rape said Friday Assange should answer questions — now.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz said in a statement that Assange should "pack his bags, leave the embassy and start cooperating with the police and the prosecutor."
She said the panel's decision is "insulting and offensive" toward her client and the rights of all crime victims, and that it is "important to remember that Assange had violated the law and is willfully defying the courts' decisions."
Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Jill Lawless and Malin Rising in London contributed.