STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A Swedish prosecutor dropped an investigation into an allegation of rape against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, ending the near decade-old case that had sent the anti-secrecy campaigner into hiding in London’s Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition.
Although the prosecutor’s decision can be appealed, it probably closes the case, which was launched in 2010. The accuser’s lawyer said she was studying whether to appeal it.
Assange, an Australian citizen, skipped bail in Britain to avoid possible extradition and took refuge in the embassy in 2012. He was dragged out by police in April this year, and is now in jail in Britain fighting extradition to the United States on separate computer hacking and espionage charges.
While Assange was in the embassy, the statute of limitations ran out on investigating all but one of several Swedish sex crime complaints originally filed by two women. Deputy Chief Prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson reopened the remaining case after Assange left the embassy, but she said on Tuesday the passage of time meant there was not enough evidence to indict Assange.
“After conducting a comprehensive assessment of what has emerged during the course of the preliminary investigation I then make the assessment that the evidence is not strong enough to form the basis for filing an indictment,” Persson told a news conference.
“Nine years have passed. Time is a player in this decision.”
Assange, 48, has repeatedly denied the sex crime allegations and said they were part of a plot to discredit him and secure his eventual transfer to the United States, which unveiled charges against him only after he left the embassy.
“Let us now focus on the threat Mr Assange has been warning about for years: the belligerent prosecution of the United States and the threat it poses to the First Amendment,” WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said in a statement.
Elisabet Massi Fritz, the legal counsel of the woman who filed the remaining criminal complaint, told Reuters in a text message that she and her client would discuss whether to request that the decision to end the investigation be reviewed.
“The only right decision would have been to interrogate the suspect in London and serve him with a final notification of the suspicion of rape and thereafter bring charges,” she said.
“After today’s decision my client needs time to process everything that has happened over these nine years in order to be able to move on with her life.”
The Australian-born Assange made global headlines in early 2010 when WikiLeaks published a classified U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff.
WikiLeaks later angered the United States by publishing caches of leaked military documents and diplomatic cables.
In 2016 it played a role in the US presidential campaign, releasing documents from hacked email accounts of Democratic Party officials. US investigators determined those emails were originally obtained by Russian hackers as part of an effort by Moscow to help elect President Donald Trump.
Admirers have hailed Assange as a hero for exposing what they describe as abuse of power by modern states and for championing free speech. Critics say he is a dangerous figure complicit in Russian efforts to undermine the West.
Even some critics of Assange say the US charges against him could be troubling, since they treat publication of secrets as a crime, activity that advocates of press freedom say is essential for journalism.
The decision by the Swedish prosecutor heads off a possible dilemma for the British courts which could potentially have had to decide between competing extradition requests from the United States and Sweden.
Since leaving the embassy, Assange has served a British sentence for skipping bail. He is now being held pending his next hearing in February on the US extradition request. He faces 18 criminal counts including conspiring to hack government computers and violating an espionage law.