Julian Assange in custody in the UK on May 1, 2019
Photo: AP

Swedish prosecutors have reopened their investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on charges of rape made by a woman in 2010. Assange skipped bail in June 2012 while in London and claimed asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he lived for almost seven years.

Eva-Marie Persson, Deputy Director of Public Prosecution in Sweden, announced the reopening of the rape case at a press conference in Stockholm this morning that was broadcast live on YouTube by Kremlin-financed news organization Ruptly.

“After reviewing the preliminary investigation… my assessment is there is still probable cause to suspect Mr. Assange committed rape or a lesser offense,” Persson said, according to an English-language translator at the press conference.

Prosecutors will seek Assange’s extradition to Sweden, but it’s not immediately clear whether that will actually happen since the controversial publisher faces extradition to the U.S. on hacking charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice. Assange, a 47-year-old Australian national, is charged in the U.S. with trying to help Chelsea Manning crack the password on a government computer with classified material back in 2010.

Swedish prosecutors dropped a sexual assault charge, independent of the rape charge brought by a different woman, back in May 2017 because they couldn’t properly interview Assange while he was claiming asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy. The statute of limitations for that charge has expired.

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“The decision taken... to discontinue the investigation on the 19th of May, 2017, was not motivated by difficulty related to evidence, but was instead entirely based on the circumstances at the time which prohibited the furtherance of the investigation,” Persson said.

The rape case was also suspended because Swedish prosecutors were unable to interview Assange while he was in the embassy. The statute of limitations on the rape charge in Sweden expires on August 17, 2020.

Ecuador revoked Assange’s asylum on April 11 and the WikiLeaks founder was physically removed from the embassy. Assange was subsequently sentenced to just under one year in prison by British prosecutors for skipping bail back in 2012. U.S. prosecutors revealed a single hacking charge against Assange only after he was apprehended by UK authorities.

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Persson would like to speak with Assange via video link to formally notify him of the charges, consistent with Swedish law. If Assange declines to voluntarily communicate with Swedish authorities via video link they may visit him in prison in the UK. Either way, prosecutors would eventually like to extradite Assange to Sweden to face charges.

Curiously, Swedish prosecutors note that the U.S. Justice Department still hasn’t formally requested Assange’s extradition to the U.S. but they note that such a request is supposed to be filed with UK courts “no later” than June 14. Assange formally declined voluntary extradition to the U.S. on May 2.

Persson stressed that if Assange were extradited to Sweden, he wouldn’t be sent to a third country like the United States without the explicit consent of the UK government. One of the reasons that Assange said he claimed asylum in London was that he suspected American prosecutors would try to bring charges against him unrelated to the sex assault cases. Assange is concerned about being charged under the Espionage Act in the U.S. and his defenders note that unlike the rest of the developed world the U.S. currently has the death penalty. Ecuadorian authorities were allegedly told by British prosecutors that Assange would not face the death penalty if his asylum was revoked. The details of the arrangement between the British and Ecuadorian governments is still unclear.

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Journalists asked Swedish prosecutors today what kind of evidence they may have against Assange, aside from the oral testimony of the rape victim. Persson declined to discuss the specific evidence they may have for the time being, but she said that there was sufficient probable cause to continue the investigation.