Swe­den drops As­sange in­ves­ti­ga­tion

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - SI­MON JOHN­SON STOCKHOLM MICHAEL HOLDEN LON­DON

Bri­tish police say Wik­iLeaks founder still faces ar­rest if he leaves the Ecuadorean em­bassy he has lived in since 2012

Swedish pros­e­cu­tors dropped an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Wik­iLeaks founder Ju­lian As­sange on Fri­day, but Bri­tish police said he would still be ar­rested if he left the Ecuadorean em­bassy in Lon­don where he has been holed up for five years.

Mr. As­sange, 45, took refuge in the em­bassy in June, 2012, to avoid ex­tra­di­tion to Swe­den af­ter two women made rape and sex­ual mo­lesta­tion al­le­ga­tions against him, which he de­nies.

He feared Swe­den would hand him over to the United States to face pros­e­cu­tion over the Wik­iLeaks pub­li­ca­tion of clas­si­fied mil­i­tary and diplo­matic doc­u­ments in one of the largest in­for­ma­tion leaks in U.S. his­tory.

Ap­pear­ing on the bal­cony of the em­bassy af­ter the Swedish an­nounce­ment, Mr. As­sange said he was ready to talk to Bri­tain “about what is the best way for­ward” and with the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice, but also de­fended his right to stay put.

“The road is far from over. The war, the proper war is just com­menc­ing,” he told sup­port­ers and media af­ter rais­ing a clenched fist in a ges­ture of vic­tory.

Police in Lon­don said they were still obliged to ar­rest Mr. As­sange if he left the em­bassy for skip­ping bail. They said this was a much less se­ri­ous of­fence than rape, but he could still face up to a year in jail if con­victed.

Mr. As­sange is a cy­ber­hero to some for ex­pos­ing gov­ern­ment abuses of power and cham­pi­oning free speech, but to oth­ers he is a crim­i­nal who has un­der­mined the se­cu­rity of the West.

The for­mer com­puter hacker en­raged Wash­ing­ton by pub­lish­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of se­cret U.S. diplo­matic ca­bles that laid bare of­ten highly crit­i­cal U.S. ap­praisals of world lead­ers from Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to the Saudi royal fam­ily.

Ear­lier on Fri­day, Swedish chief pros­e­cu­tor Mar­i­anne Ny said the rape in­ves­ti­ga­tion could not pro­ceed be­cause of le­gal ob­sta­cles.

“We are not mak­ing a state­ment about his guilt,” Ms. Ny said, adding that the in­ves­tiga- tion could be re­opened if Mr. As­sange came to Swe­den be­fore the statute of lim­i­ta­tions dead­line for the rape al­le­ga­tion in 2020.

Mr. As­sange al­ways de­nied the rape al­le­ga­tions and said they were a ploy to get him whisked off to the United States.

In Jan­uary, Mr. As­sange said he stood by an of­fer to go to the United States pro­vid­ing his rights were up­held and if for­mer mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst Chelsea Man­ning, who was re­spon­si­ble for a 2010 leak of clas­si­fied ma­te­ri­als to Mr. As­sange’s an­ti­se­crecy group, was freed.

Ms. Man­ning was re­leased on Wed­nes­day af­ter spend­ing seven years in a U.S. mil­i­tary prison for pass­ing the doc­u­ments to Wik­iLeaks.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May said on Fri­day it would be “an op­er­a­tional mat­ter for the police” to de­cide whether to ar­rest Mr. As­sange if he left the em­bassy. Asked if she would sup­port Bri­tain ex­tra­dit­ing Mr. As­sange to the United States, she said: “We look at ex­tra­di­tion re­quests when we re­ceive them on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

While Mr. As­sange may still not be able to leave the em­bassy in the up­mar­ket Knights­bridge area of Lon­don, the pros­e­cu­tor’s de­ci­sion to stop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of rape brings to an end a seven-year stand-off with Swe­den.

The Ecuadorean gov­ern­ment wel­comed the de­ci­sion and in a state­ment called on Bri­tain to grant As­sange safe pas­sage to Ecuador. For­eign Min­is­ter Guil­laume Long said Mr. As­sange was wel­come to stay in the em­bassy if this was not granted.

“As long as we fear that this is a case of po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion … as long as we fear for Mr. As­sange’s in­tegrity and hu­man rights, we will con­tinue with our pol­icy of of­fer­ing him asylum,” Mr. Long said in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

He said that re­cent state­ments by U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions in­di­cat­ing that U.S. au­thor­i­ties would seek to ar­rest Mr. As­sange were a sign that he still faces per­se­cu­tion out­side Bri­tain.

Last month CIA di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo called Wik­iLeaks a “hos­tile in­tel­li­gence ser­vice”, and Mr. Ses­sions, re­spond­ing to a ques­tion about Mr. As­sange, said the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was step­ping up its ef­forts against all leaks of sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion.

“When­ever a case can be made, we will seek to put some peo­ple in jail,” Mr. Ses­sions said.

Dur­ing last year’s U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign, Wik­iLeaks pub­lished e-mails from Hil­lary Clin­ton’s staff and the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, that some be­lieve helped to lose her the elec­tion to Mr. Trump. U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have con­cluded the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment hacked the e-mails as part of an ef­fort by Moscow to tilt the elec­tion in Mr. Trump’s favour.

The As­sange case has raised ques­tions about the Swedish jus­tice sys­tem, with a United Na­tions panel say­ing Mr. As­sange had been sub­ject to “ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion”.

Pros­e­cu­tors have been ac­cused of vac­il­lat­ing, first drop­ping the pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tion and then reopen­ing it and of drag­ging their heels over ques­tion­ing Mr. As­sange.

Pros­e­cu­tors first in­ter­viewed Mr. As­sange in Novem­ber last year in the Ecuadorean em­bassy. They were not al­lowed to ques­tion him di­rectly, only through an Ecuadorean pros­e­cu­tor.

Mr. As­sange’s lawyer, Per Sa­muel­son, hailed Swe­den’s de­ci­sion to drop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as “a to­tal vic­tory for us.”

JACK TAY­LOR/GETTY IM­AGES

Ju­lian As­sange raises his fist as he speaks to the media from the bal­cony of the Em­bassy of Ecuador on Fri­day in Lon­don.

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