Julian Assange all smiles after seven-year rape investigation is dropped
Sweden has dropped its investigation into a rape allegation against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who says he won't forgive or forget the slandering of his name following an "important victory".
The country's Director of Public Prosecutions, Marianne Ny, made the announcement in Stockholm on Friday.
"Chief Prosecutor Marianne Ny has today decided to discontinue the preliminary investigation regarding suspected rape concerning Julian Assange," the prosecutors' office said in a statement.
Ny said it was "not possible to take any further steps that would move the investigation forward".
"All prospects of pursuing the investigation are now exhausted," she said. "It is no longer proportionate to maintain the arrest of Julian Assange in his absence.
"To continue with legal proceedings would require Julian Assange's personal appearance in court. There is no longer any reason to continue with the investigation."
Assange, 45, who has been in Ecuador's London embassy since 2012, where he was granted political asylum, tweeted a smiling image of himself after the news broke.
He has been remanded in custody in absentia by Swedish authorities, who issued an arrest warrant relating to a 2010 rape allegation which Assange denies.
"Detained for 7 years without charge by while my children grew up and my name was slandered. I do not forgive or forget," he tweeted.
Detained for 7 years without charge by while my children grew up and my name was slandered. I do not forgive or forget.— Julian Assange (@JulianAssange) May 19, 2017
On Friday afternoon [Saturday NZ Time], Assange came out onto the embassy balcony to address the media on the street below, in a 10-minute statement after which he took no questions.
"Today is an important victory," he said, saying he had been detained without charge for seven years, five of them in the embassy.
"My children grew up without me, that's something I can never forgive, it's something I can never forget."
He anticipated there would be an official inquiry into the "terrible injustice" that had occurred, and hoped it would be a more broad inquiry into the ability of states, especially in the European Union, to detain and extradite people without charge.
He said "the road is far from over and the war, the proper war is just beginning" as he still faced arrest if he left the embassy and the US had said his arrest was "a priority".
He said his legal team hoped to engage with UK and US authorities to find "a way forward".
'REAL RISK' OF ARREST, EXTRADITION
Swedish prosecutors interviewed Assange at the embassy last November and in mid-March received a full translation of the interview, which they have since been reviewing.
In May, Assange's lawyers asked the Stockholm District Court to review the detention order and arrest warrant against him.
They argued that the US had expressed they were seeking his extradition to the US over alleged crimes relating to Wikileaks' publication of classified documents.
Assange's lawyer Per Samuelson said Assange faced a "real risk" of extradition from Sweden. He argued his client's remand status should be changed so he could leave the embassy to travel to Ecuador.
The accusation against Assange relates to an encounter between him and a woman he met at a WIkileaks conference in Stockholm in August 2010.
However, Assange has maintained he is "entirely innocent".
Earlier this month, Ecuador sent a letter to the Swedish government condemning the "obvious lack of progress" in the investigation of the allegation against Assange, saying it was "extremely worrying" and demanding that Sweden either charge Assange or drop the investigation.
In February last year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Assange was in effect being arbitrarily detained against international law.
However Assange is not likely to celebrate by immediately leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London as he would still be arrested.
In a tweet, Wikileaks said the "focus now moves to the UK".
US attorney general Jeff Sessions has said arresting Assange was "a priority", over alleged crimes relating to Wikileaks' publication of classified documents.
Assange's lawyer Per Samuelsson told news agency TT his client was now considering suing Sweden.
"It's not about money but redress," Samuelsson said.
He said he believed Assange would try to move to Ecuador.
Assange's Australian legal adviser Greg Barns said he would ask the country's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene.
"Mr Turnbull should talk to [Theresa] May about safe passage out [of the UK]", Barns said.
"Mr Turnbull should also ask whether there is an extradition request against Assange."
The UK's Home Office was unable to comment on the implications of the decision because of the upcoming election.
It's understood the standard procedure, which will apply in this case, is for the department to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an extradition request for Assange before an arrest has been made.
London's Metropolitan Police Service, which has been staking out the embassy for five years, said there was still an outstanding warrant for Assange's arrest in the UK for skipping bail. Wikileaks claimed the UK would arrest Assange "regardless".
"Westminster Magistrates' Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Julian Assange following him failing to surrender to the court on the 29 June 2012. The Metropolitan Police Service is obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the Embassy," the Metropolitan Police said in a statement.
"Whilst Mr Assange was wanted on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for an extremely serious offence, the MPS response reflected the serious nature of that crime.
"Now that the situation has changed and the Swedish authorities have discontinued their investigation into that matter, Mr Assange remains wanted for a much less serious offence. The MPS will provide a level of resourcing which is proportionate to that offence."
Melinda Taylor, a member of Assange's legal team, said their next step was to push for the US to "clarify" Assange's legal status.
"Their prosecution has been going on since at least 2010, that's a hell of a long time," she said. "He has been deprived of the ability to defend himself."
His lawyers would approach the Department of Justice in the US and request that they either confirm their decision to seek Assange's extradition, or drop the case altogether, she said.
Assange argues that he and Wikileaks are protected under freedom of speech laws, so he has no case to answer in the US.
Asked if Assange would consider agreeing to extradition to fight the case conventionally in the US courts, Taylor said Assange had already indicated earlier this year that he would do so "if he could rely on standard due process protections and assert a public interest defence".
"In any fair trial he would be sure to be acquitted," she said. "But none of that can start, though, until the US makes its intentions clear."
Assange's lawyers will also call on the UK to drop the outstanding arrest warrant against him.
They have a potential legal avenue: to approach the courts arguing that the Swedish decision constitutes a significant change in circumstances that means the warrant should be reviewed.
Given that the maximum sentence for breach of bail is one year's prison, and the UN has determined that he has been in effect detained for seven years, "such credit would exceed any sentence and makes his arrest moot", Taylor said.
It was also time for the Australian government to "step up to the plate" and show that it would act to defend the rights of journalists, Taylor said.
Assange's Australian passport expired last year, so he was unable to travel to either Ecuador or Australia even if he were to walk out of the embassy a free man, Taylor said.
"At least they could give him an Australia passport," she said.
- Sydney Morning Herald