Swedish prosecutors are to reopen an investigation into a rape allegation against Julian Assange.
The deputy director of public prosecutions, Eva-Marie Persson, announced the decision at a press conference on Monday, saying: “I have today taken the decision to reopen the preliminary investigation.”
She said the circumstances allowed for an extradition to Sweden from Britain, and an interview with Assange should be conducted.
“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. “It is my assessment that a new questioning of Assange is required.”
With Assange now detained by the UK, “the prerequisites for continuing and completing the investigation are now considered to exist”, she said.
Prosecutors dropped the investigation in 2017 because they were unable to proceed while the WikiLeaks founder remained in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. They said at the time that the investigation could be reopened if the situation changed. Assange has always denied the allegation.
Assange, 47, was removed from the embassy last month after the Ecuadorian government abruptly withdrew his asylum. Having spent seven years in the building, he was arrested for breach of bail.
A lawyer for one of the women involved in the Swedish allegations subsequently asked for the investigation to be resumed. Assange had also faced an investigation over a second allegation, but this was dropped in 2015 because time had run out. He has denied both allegations.
Immediately after his arrest in April, US authorities made a request for Assange’s extradition in a case relating to WikiLeaks’ release of sensitive military and diplomatic documents. He faces allegations in the US that he conspired with a former intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, to download classified databases. The charge against him carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Assange is being held in Belmarsh high-security prison in south London after being sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for a bail violation. He appeared by video link at Westminster magistrates court on 2 May to say he did not consent to being extradited to the US. The court heard that the extradition process would take “many months” and the case was adjourned until 30 May.
Persson said the British authorities would decide whether the Swedish or US extradition request had priority.
The Swedish allegations date back to 2010. Assange unsuccessfully fought in the British courts to have the Swedish extradition order and preliminary investigation dropped. His lawyers said he feared that if he went to Sweden, authorities could have handed him over to the US to face prosecution over the WikiLeaks case.
The lawyer for the woman who had asked for the investigation to be reopened welcomed the decision saying: “Today we got great news.” It signalled “that no-one stands above the law,” Elisabeth Massi Fritz, told a new conference.
“My client feels great gratitude and she is very hopeful about getting restitution and we both hope that justice will win”, she added.
She said Swedish prosecutors would be “forced to take steps quickly to ensure that we have time to get a potential criminal charge in this case.”
WikiLeaks said the reopening of the Swedish investigation would give Assange a chance 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,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, said in a statement. “Its reopening will give Julian a chance to clear his name.”
Hrafnsson criticised the Swedish handling of the case. He said: “This case has been mishandled throughout. After the Swedish prosecutor refused to question Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy for years, it was only when forced by Swedish courts that she travelled to London to finally question Assange.
“Then Sweden wanted to drop its arrest warrant for Assange as early as 2013. It was the British government that insisted that the case against him continue. Since the investigation was closed in 2017, we have received reports of the destruction of records and correspondence on behalf of UK and Swedish authorities, surely an impediment to a thorough investigation.
“Assange was always willing to answer any questions from the Swedish authorities and repeatedly offered to do so, over six years. The widespread media assertion that Assange ‘evaded’ Swedish questioning is false. This investigation has been dropped before and its reopening will give Julian a chance to clear his name.”
Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Per Samuelson, told the Swedish broadcaster SVT that he was “very surprised” by the decision to reopen the case, saying it was “embarrassing” for Sweden.
Nick Vamos, a former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, told Reuters news agency that UK extradition proceedings should not take more than 18 months.