Could Julian Assange still face rape charges in Sweden?

12 APR 19 10:31 ET

(CNN) — The world watched this week as the disheveled figure of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was hauled, kicking and screaming at British police officers, from Ecuador’s London embassy, where he had been holed up for seven years.

Much of the coverage focused on a big new revelation: The US request for his extradition, on a single charge of conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to steal military secrets.

But potentially just as significant could be the announcement by Sweden’s prosecuting authority that it is considering whether to reopen an investigation into an allegation of rape against Assange that was closed in 2017.

Swedish authorities are clearly playing catchup. While it is clear that there was a degree of co-ordination between UK and US authorities — the US indictment was unsealed shortly after the Metropolitan Police announced Assange’s arrest — the Swedes knew nothing of it.

“This is news to us too … We also do not know why he is under arrest,” said Sweden’s Chief Prosecutor Ingrid Isgren. “We are following the developments.”

Some commentators have expressed surprise that Sweden wasn’t given a heads up — after all, the reason Assange turned up at the Ecuadorian embassy on June 19, 2012, was because he had lost his UK Supreme Court appeal against extradition to Sweden on allegations of sexual assault and rape. “Serious question for the UK (and Ecuador) to answer: Why was Sweden not not told before the arrest was made,” wrote the British legal commentator, David Allen Green, on Twitter.

Nevertheless, Sweden moved fast. By the end of Thursday, Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson had been appointed to the case. “We will now examine the case in order to determine how to proceed,” she said in a statement. “The investigation has not yet been resumed, and we do not know today whether it will be. Furthermore, we cannot set a timetable for when any such decision will be made.”

The allegations were made separately by two women in Sweden after a visit by Assange there in August 2010. By December that year, the Stockholm Criminal Court had issued an international arrest warrant and Assange — who has always proclaimed his innocence — handed himself into British police. Over the next couple of years, Assange fought extradition to Sweden but the UK Supreme Court ruled against him in May 2012. Three weeks later, he entered the Ecuadorian embassy requesting political asylum.

In August 2015, the statute of limitations on the allegations of sexual assault expired. Sweden dropped the investigation into the rape allegation in 2017, after questioning Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The country’s then Director of Public Prosecution, Marianne Ny, said that “all possibilities to advance the investigation have now been exhausted.”

The case was set aside, Ny said, because there was no practical way it could be continued while Assange remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. If that situation changed, the decision could be reviewed. “If he, at a later date, makes himself available, I will be able to decide to resume the investigation immediately,” she said.

As news broke of Assange’s arrest on Thursday, Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for the woman who accused Assange of rape, tweeted that she and her client were shocked by his arrest, but said they had been hoping for it since 2012.

Under Swedish law, any charges related to the rape allegation must be made by August 2020.

In the UK Parliament Thursday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid outlined how court proceedings for extraditions play out in Britain. Following the initial arrest, the full extradition papers must be received by the judge within 65 days. The extradition request must be certified by the Home Office before going to court, Javid said.

If Sweden decides to submit its own extradition request, it would be up to UK courts to decide on whether it should take precedence over the expected petition from the US. And in any event, Assange must first serve his sentence for skipping bail in 2012. A judge will determine his punishment at a later date.

Assange’s legal team may be concentrating for now on how to defend him from being sent to the US. But with the Swedish case back in play, they may yet be fighting on two fronts.

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