The top Swedish prosecutor pursuing sexual assault charges against Julian Assange has abruptly left the case and one of Mr Assange's accusers has sacked her lawyer.
The turmoil in the Swedish Prosecution Authority's effort to extradite Mr Assange comes as another leading Swedish judge prepares to deliver an unprecedented public lecture in Australia next week on the WikiLeak publisher's case.
The Swedish Prosecution Authority want to extradite Mr Assange to have him questioned in Stockholm in relation to sexual assault allegations by two women.
Fairfax Media has obtained Swedish court documents that reveal high-profile Swedish prosecutor Marianne Nye has unexpectedly left the handling Mr Assange's case, effective from yesterday, and has been replaced by a more junior prosecutor Ingrid Isgren.
The reasons for the change have not yet been disclosed.
One of Mr Assange's two accusers, political activist Anna Ardin, also applied to the Swedish courts on February 28 to replace her controversial lawyer Claes Borgstrom.
Ms Ardin complained that she found Mr Borgstrom spent much more time talking to the media than to her, referred her inquiries to his secretary or assistant, and that she had lost faith in him as her legal representative.
As well pursuing the prosecution of Mr Assange, Mr Borgstrom has been heavily criticised for his handling of another high-profile case involving an alleged mass murderer, with one prominent Swedish commentator describing him as doing "the worst defence counsel job in modern Swedish history".
Ms Ardin's engagement of a new lawyer, Elisabeth Massi Fritz, has now been approved.
News of changes in the Swedish prosecution of Mr Assange comes shortly before Swedish Supreme Court judge Stefan Lindskog delivers a keynote lecture on "the Assange affair, and freedom of speech, from the Swedish perspective" at the University of Adelaide next Wednesday.
Speaking to Fairfax Media, Mr Assange condemned judge Lindskog's planned discussion of his case.
"If an Australian High Court judge came out and spoke on a case the court expected or was likely to judge, it would be regarded as absolutely outrageous," he said.
"This development is part of a pattern in which senior Swedish figures including the Swedish Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister and Minister for Justice have all publicly attacked me or WikiLeaks."
Justice Lindskog is chairman of the Supreme Court of Sweden, the country's highest court of appeal. In announcing his forthcoming lecture, Adelaide University observed that "as one of Sweden's most eminent jurists he is uniquely able to provide an authoritative view of the Assange affair".
In an article in today's Australian Financial Review the judge observes that he finds it "amusing how the Assange case offers possibilities of sharp turns when it comes to topics to be discussed.
From, on the one hand, whether lies about condoms can result in a sexual crime to, on the other, the question of if telling the truth, by publishing classified information, can amount to a crime permitting extradition to the state that claims being harmed".
Greg Barns, a barrister spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance,
said it was a fundamental legal principle that judges do not speak publicly on matters that are likely to come before the courts or are yet to be decided.
"That a Swedish supreme court judge thinks this is acceptable tends to confirm the fears people have about the impartiality and robustness of the Swedish judicial system. It gives great currency to the belief that Mr Assange's case in Sweden has been heavily politicised.
"Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus should be taking this matter up with his Swedish counterpart as a matter of urgency," Mr Barns said.
Mr Assange currently lives in the embassy of Ecuador in London where he has been granted political asylum on the grounds he is at risk of extradition to the United States to face conspiracy or other charges arising from WikiLeaks obtaining thousands of secret US military and diplomatic reports leaked by US Army private Bradley Manning.
Mr Assange was unsuccessful in legal appeals in the United Kingdom and Sweden, including to the Swedish Supreme Court, seeking to overturn a European arrest warrant.
Mr Assange claims that extradition to Sweden would facilitate his eventual extradition to the United States.
WikiLeaks today claimed via Twitter that the judge's visit is part of a Swedish government campaign against Mr Assange following the recent visit to Australia of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
"The head of Swedish Supreme Court campaigning on a case they expect to judge with $ from the embassy in the run up to an election," WikiLeaks tweeted.
Mr Assange has announced his intention to run as a Senate candidate in Victoria at the September 14 federal election.
Meanwhile the United States government has confirmed that its grand jury criminal investigation of WikiLeaks and Mr Assange is continuing.
A US Justice Department spokesman for federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia has confirmed this week that a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks "remains ongoing" some three years after the transparency website first published classified US diplomatic reports and video of a helicopter gunship attack in Iraq.
Official confirmation of a continuing criminal probe came in response to inquiries from independent US journalist Alexa O'Brien about statements made in pre-trial hearings in the prosecution of Private Manning that the Justice Department is still investigating the "founders, owners, or managers of WikiLeaks".
O'Brien has won plaudits for her highly detailed coverage of the US military prosecution of Private Manning for leaking secret documents to WikiLeaks.
Michael Ratner, president emeritus at the New York based Centre for Constitutional Rights and lawyer for WikiLeaks and Mr Assange in the United States, said the Justice Department statement "publicly confirms what the WikiLeaks legal team have known for a long time - that there is an active, ongoing federal investigation of the WikiLeaks organisation".
"It is upsetting to see the Department of Justice pushing such vast resources at prosecuting a publisher for simply doing its job - telling us the truth about war," Mr Ratner said.
Australian diplomats in Washington have tracked the WikiLeaks investigation closely. One classified diplomatic cable from the Australian embassy in Washington in November 2012, released to Fairfax Media under freedom-of-information laws, explicitly refers to "the district court of the Eastern District of Virginia, where the WikiLeaks grand jury has been convened".
Earlier Australian embassy reports, also released under freedom of information, quoted senior Justice Department officials describing the WikiLeaks probe as "unprecedented both in its scale and nature"'.
However Foreign Minister Bob Carr has repeatedly asserted that the Australian government has no confirmation of a grand jury investigation and has seen no evidence of any intention by the US government to seek Mr Assange's extradition.
Last month Senator Carr and US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich dismissed any suggestions the US may wish to extradite the WikiLeaks publisher as "ludicrous" and "sheer fantasy".
On February 28, Private Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges relating to leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, which could carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
Military prosecutors have indicated their intention to pursue the remaining charges including that of "aiding the enemy", which could carry a life sentence.
Private Manning's court martial is presently scheduled to be held at Fort Meade, Maryland, in June, more than three years after his arrest at a US military base in Iraq in May 2010.
- The Age