Sweden re-opens Julian Assange rape investigation

Two women accused Assange of rape in 2010

By Lauren Said-Moorhouse and Per Nyberg, CNN

(CNN) - Sweden will re-open its investigation into an allegation of rape against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the country's deputy chief prosecutor announced on Monday.

Prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson told reporters in Stockholm that the investigation into the alleged rape had been suspended in 2017 not for lack of evidence but as a result of Assange's continued residence in Ecuador's London embassy.

Following his removal from those premises by British authorities last month, Persson said that circumstances had changed and investigators would seek a new interview with the 47-year-old computer programmer.

"After reviewing the preliminary investigation carried out so far, I find that there still exist grounds for Julian Assange to be suspected on probable cause of the charge of rape," Persson said.

The Australian whistleblower originally faced four sex-related charges in Sweden after an August 2010 visit to the country. The claims of misconduct triggered a years-long extradition battle, which Assange eventually lost in the UK's Supreme Court in 2012.

Shortly after that, Assange entered Ecuador's embassy, and remained there for almost seven years.

Assange -- who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing -- has always maintained that he sought refuge over fears of onward extradition from Sweden to the United States for his work with WikiLeaks.

In August 2015, the statute of limitations on three of the allegations of sexual abuse lapsed. Under Swedish law, any charges related to the fourth allegation of rape must be made by August 2020. The WikiLeaks founder has never been charged in relation to the allegations; and proceedings have never developed beyond the investigation stage.

What now?

On April 11, Assange was dramatically evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy and taken into British custody. He has since been sentenced to nearly a year in a UK prison over bail violations stemming from when he entered the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden in 2012.

On the heels of his dramatic arrest, Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for the alleged victim in Sweden, requested the probe be resumed. Fritz said on Monday that her client was "very grateful" for the prosecutors' decision and that "today she has regained confidence in the Swedish justice system."

Fritz said the decision to reopen the inquiry showed that "no one is above the law, not even if their name is Julian Assange."

Deputy Chief Prosecutor Persson said that the next step will be to file a new European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for Assange for after he has finished serving his UK sentence.

Valid across the European Union since 2004, the EAW was designed to speed up lengthy extradition operations and allows EU members to ask for the arrest and surrender of criminals in other member states.

However, Persson emphasized that a decision on filing charges had not yet been made.

"I would like to make the following very clear: my decision to re-open the preliminary investigation is not equivalent on whether or not to file an indictment with the courts. This is the matter we'll have to revisit," she added.

In response to the Swedish inquiry restarting, WikiLeaks accused prosecutors of bending to "intense political pressure" but said renewed investigations would allow Assange to clear his name.

"Since Julian Assange was arrested on 11 April 2019, there has been considerable political pressure on Sweden to reopen their investigation, but there has always been political pressure surrounding this case," WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said in a statement.

"This case has been mishandled throughout," he said, adding that Assange "was always willing to answer any questions from the Swedish authorities and repeatedly offered to do so, over six years."

"This investigation has been dropped before and its reopening will give Julian a chance to clear his name," Hrafnsson said.

Assange is already facing a provisional extradition request from the US for one count of conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to access US Defense Department computers in order to steal military secrets in 2010.

Proceedings through UK courts for that extradition request have been adjourned until May 30.

Who gets him first?

During the press conference on Monday, Persson said she was aware that the US had already put in an extradition request for Assange.

She added: "In the event of a conflict between a European Arrest Warrant and a request for extradition from the US, UK authorities will decide on the order of priority."

According to UK law, in the case of competing extradition claims, the decision is left to the country's Home Secretary to determine which petition takes precedence.

Extradition lawyer Rebecca Niblock of Kingsley Napley told CNN that the Home Secretary would make that decision based on four things: "Firstly, the relative seriousness of the offenses; secondly, the place where the offense is committed; thirdly, the date the warrant was issued and when the request was received and fourthly, whether the person is accused or convicted."

She continued: "It would be a very difficult decision for the Home Secretary to make because he would then have to decide on the seriousness of the offenses ... rape against the computer intrusion. In my view the offense of rape would the more serious one -- it carries a sentence of life imprisonment in this country."

Over 70 British lawmakers have already signed an open letter calling upon UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid "to stand with the victims of sexual violence" and offer Sweden the UK's full support.

Where is he now?

In the meantime, Assange is serving his UK jail term at Belmarsh prison, a high-security facility in Thamesmead, southeast London.

Belmarsh has the capacity to hold over 900 inmates. The facility is comprised of four main residential blocks as well as a high-security unit -- known for previously housing some of Britain's most notorious terror suspects including Abu Hamza al-Masri and Anjem Choudary.

Visitors to Assange have been restricted since arrival but one of the first to visit -- aside from his lawyers -- was ex-Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson on Tuesday.

Anderson tweeted that she was unsurprised following the announcement from Sweden.

"Julian is an Aussie bloke who took on governments -- And who wins this fight will depend on you," she wrote.

CNN's Claudia Rebaza and Lauren Kent contributed to this report.

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