World

Sweden reopens rape case against Julian Assange

Swedish prosecutors said Monday they are reopening a rape case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a month after he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Decision applauded by accuser but raises question as to when or where Assange will be extradited

A British judge recently sentenced Julian Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. Sweden now wants new questioning of the WikiLeaks founder in connection with a rape allegation. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Swedish prosecutors said Monday they are reopening a rape case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and seek his extradition after he has served his 50-week prison term in Britain for jumping bail.

Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden's deputy director of public prosecutions, told a news conference in Stockholm "there is still a probable cause to suspect that Assange committed a rape.

"It is my assessment that a new questioning of Assange is required."

Swedish prosecutors filed preliminary charges — a step short of formal charges — against Assange after he visited the country in 2010, following complaints from two Swedish women who said they were the victims of sex crimes.

Assange, 47, from Australia, left Sweden for Britain in September 2010 and took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition. WikiLeaks said in a statement that Assange sought asylum in 2012 due to the risk of "onward extradition to the U.S. – not to avoid extradition to Sweden or to refuse to face the Swedish allegations."

After almost seven years holed up in the building, he was arrested by British police April 11 when Ecuador revoked his political asylum, accusing him of everything from meddling in the nation's foreign affairs to poor hygiene.

Accuser gratified by Monday's decision

Assange met the women in connection with a lecture in August 2010 in Stockholm. One was involved in organizing an event for Sweden's centre-left Social Democratic Party and offered to host Assange at her apartment. The other was in the audience.

A police officer who heard the women's accounts decided there was reason to suspect they were victims of sex crimes and handed the case to a prosecutor. Neither of the alleged victims has been named publicly.

Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for woman accusing Assange of rape, said the decision to reopen the case 'signals that no one stands above the law.' (TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via Reuters)

Seven years later, a case of alleged sexual misconduct was dropped when the statute of limitations expired. That left a rape allegation, which couldn't be pursued while Assange was living at the embassy.

Assange has denied wrongdoing, asserting the allegations were politically motivated and the sex was consensual.

He could face a maximum of four years in prison in Sweden.

Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for the woman who has accused Assange of rape, said the decision to reopen the case "signals that no one stands above the law" and "the legal system in Sweden doesn't give a special treatment to anyone."

Fritz told reporters Monday she spoke with her client, who is not being named, by phone, and her client "feels great gratitude."

Fritz said she hopes justice prevails, and "we believe the evidence is good enough that it must be tested."

Faces extradition to both Sweden, U.S.

Assange is in London's Belmarsh Prison serving a 50-week sentence for jumping bail in 2012. He is also being held on a U.S. extradition warrant for allegedly hacking into a Pentagon computer.

Assange's Swedish lawyer Per E. Samuelsen told Swedish broadcaster SVT on Monday he was "very surprised" by the decision to reopen the case.

"I do not understand the Swedish prosecutor's ... reasoning for reopening a 10-year old case."

Vice-chief prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson said Monday in Stockholm it's not guaranteed, due to expected appeals, that extradition can take place before the charge's August 2020 statute of limitations. (Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency via AP)

Persson said a European arrest warrant will be issued for Assange. A Swedish court would formally issue the extradition request, which Assange could appeal.

She added that while there is a risk the case may cut close to the statute of limitations deadline, "there is also a chance that we will be able to get him extradited before Aug. 17 next year."

The Swedish move would leave British authorities to decide whether to extradite Assange to Sweden or to the United States, where he is wanted separately for allegedly hacking into a Pentagon computer.

The British extradition process is not swift, and Assange could appeal several times if decisions go against him. It's expected it would take a year or longer for him to be sent to the United States or possibly to Sweden even if he ultimately loses in court.

WikiLeaks editor in chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the decision to reopen the case against Assange "will give Julian a chance to clear his name."

He said in a statement that Persson had been under "intense political pressure" to reopen the case, and criticized authorities for "mishandling" it from the start.

With files from Reuters