Why has Sweden dropped the rape case against Julian Assange and is he free to leave the Ecuadorian embassy?

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Who is Julian Assange?

Julian Assange, born Julian Paul Hawkins on July 3 1971 is the founder of WikiLeaks – a website set up to allow whistleblowers to release anonymous documents.

The 45-year-old Australian computer hacker started the site in 2006, but it wasn’t until the publication of information about the US military, leaked by Chelsea Manning, that WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief became household names.

Assange speaks during a news conference at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2014

Credit:
 Reuters

Among the leaks were a video entitled Collateral Murder, showing unarmed Iraqis being gunned down by an American helicopters; the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, which revealed the true human cost of the conflicts; and over 250,000 diplomatic cables, which shone an uncomfortable spotlight on US foreign policy.

Mr Assange has since been involved in the publication of material documenting extrajudicial killings in Kenya, a report on toxic waste dumping on the Ivory Coast, Church of Scientology manuals, Guantanamo Bay detention camp procedures and material involving large banks such as Kaupthing and Julius Baer.

His work brought him international fame – at one point, there were five major films about WikiLeaks in development. Two were eventually made: We Steal Secrets, a documentary, and The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Mr Assange spoke out against both films, and in a letter to Cumberbatch said that The Fifth Estate "vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee to the benefit of an entrenched, corrupt and dangerous state".

He travelled the world speaking about WikiLeaks and his work, and became something of a hero to anti-establishment activists.

Assange

Why is he inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London?

The saga began in Sweden.

Mr Assange was in the country in August 2010, to speak at a conference. While he was there he met two women and had sex with them. They later filed complaints of rape and molestation – accusations that he denied. Mr Assange was questioned but never charged, and left the country.

Assange gives a press conference on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in Knightsbridge in Feb 2016

Credit:
 Heathcliff O'Malley

On November 20, Interpol issued a Red Notice for Mr Assange’s arrest. A week later he gave himself up, appeared before a judge in Westminster, and in December 2010 was granted bail after his supporters paid £240,000 in cash and sureties.

Legal wrangling in the UK continued until June 2012, with the Swedish prosecutors calling for him to be extradited, and Mr Assange’s lawyers saying that if he was sent to Sweden he would be at risk of then being extradited to the US.

On June 19, 2012, he fled bail and applied for asylum in Ecuador, through the embassy in Knightsbridge. But police encircled the embassy and refused to allow him to leave: the UK says its courts have ruled he must be sent to Sweden.

Ecuador granted him asylum in August 2012, but as soon as he sets foot outside the building Britain will arrest him for breaching his bail conditions. He has been inside the embassy ever since.

"I am entirely innocent," Assange wrote in a 19-page testimony released in December 2016.

He argues that the sex was consensual and has denounced the accusations as "politically motivated".

Why has Sweden dropped charges against Assange?

In a statement, chief Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny said she had decided to "discontinue" the investigation into Assange over a rape allegation dating back to 2010 as there were no further avenues to pursue to take the probe forward.

Friday was the deadline for the public prosecutor’s office to either renew or lift Assange’s arrest warrant before a Stockholm court.

The Swedes released this statement following Ecuador’s letter.

Westminster Magistrates’ Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Julian Assange following him failing to surrender to the court on the 29 June 2012. The Metropolitan Police Service is obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the Embassy.

Whilst Mr Assange was wanted on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for an extremely serious offence, the MPS response reflected the serious nature of that crime. Now that the situation has changed and the Swedish authorities have discontinued their investigation into that matter, Mr Assange remains wanted for a much less serious offence. The MPS will provide a level of resourcing which is proportionate to that offence. 

The MPS will not comment further on the operational plan. 

The priority for the MPS must continue to be arresting those who are currently wanted in the Capital in connection with serious violent or sexual offences for the protection of Londoners.

Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, in pictures

Assange prosecutor: can't make decision on Assange guilt

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How long can he stay inside the embassy? Can Assange walk free?

The Ecuadorian authorities have stated that he can remain in the embassy for as long as he wishes, but he will be arrested by British police if he chooses to leave.

Despite Sweden’s decision to drop the investigation, British police say that he still faces arrest.

The Metropolitan Police force says that there is a British warrant for Assange’s arrest after he jumped bail in 2012, and it "is obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the embassy."

But it adds that Assange is now wanted for a "much less serious offence" than the original sex crimes claims, and police "will provide a level of resourcing which is proportionate to that offence."

Assange’s Swedish lawyer last month filed a new motion demanding that the arrest warrant be lifted after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April that arresting Assange would be "a priority".

"This implies that we can now demonstrate that the US has a will to take action… this is why we ask for the arrest warrant to be cancelled so that Julian Assange can fly to Ecuador and enjoy his political asylum," lawyer Per Samuelsson told AFP at the time.

Could Britain extradite Assange to the United States?

If the US government wishes to extradite Assange they would need to be in a position to charge him and have an indictment signed off.

Officials could then apply for a provisional arrest warrant, which could be issued in a matter of hours.

The US authorities would then have a further 65 days to apply for a full extradition warrant, putting forward the grounds on which they wish to charge him.

The extradition process could then begin which might take several months as lawyers for Assange argue why he should not answer the charges in the US.

If no indictment has been drafted, the American authorities could be in a race against time to complete the legal process before Assange completes any sentence he is handed in Britain for breaching bail.

Who has visited him?

Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga, Eric Cantona, Pamela Anderson and Vivienne Westwood, among others.

Ken Loach, the film director, donated a running machine so Mr Assange could exercise.

Several reporters have interviewed him inside the embassy, and he also speaks to audiences via video conference.

Vivienne Westwood visits Julian Assange

01:09

Who turned against him?

Jemima Khan, who helped pay for his bail – and then lost the money – has written a searing critique of his behaviour, explaining why she no longer supports him.

"I have seen flashes of Assange’s charm, brilliance and insightfulness," she wrote in 2013. "But I have also seen how instantaneous rock-star status has the power to make even the most clear-headed idealist feel that they are above the law and exempt from criticism."

The Guardian, which published his early work, fell out with Mr Assange over his refusal to redact some of the material.

Julian Assange rape accusations: a timeline

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