Assange could face renewed Swedish rape case

Julian Assange pictured in a police vanImage copyright
Reuters

Image caption

Assange was found guilty of a British charge, but he could be extradited to the US to face a separate charge

Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange could face a renewed investigation into an allegation of rape in Sweden.

Assange, 47, who had been granted asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy for seven years, was arrested on Thursday.

Swedish prosecutors said they were examining the case at the request of the alleged victim’s lawyer.

The US also wants to extradite him from the UK over his alleged role in one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets in 2010.

Australian-born Assange faces a charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in the US for his alleged role in one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets in 2010, which could result in a prison term of up to five years.

Lawyer Elizabeth Massi Fritz said she would do “everything we possibly can” to get the investigation reopened in Sweden.

Assange sought refuge in the Knightsbridge embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. But Ecuador abruptly withdrew its asylum and invited the police to arrest him on Thursday.

After his dramatic arrest, he was taken to Westminster Magistrates’ Court and found guilty of a British charge of breaching bail. He spent Thursday night in custody and is facing up to 12 months in prison for that conviction.

The United Nations has called for his right to a fair trial to be respected during any extradition process.

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Media captionVideo footage shows Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy in London

What is the Swedish investigation about?

Assange was accused of rape following a Wikileaks conference in Stockholm in 2010. He has always denied the allegation, saying the sex was consensual.

Swedish prosecutors dropped the investigation into Assange in 2017 because they were unable to proceed while he remained in the Ecuadorean embassy.

They will now re-examine the rape case to decide whether to resume it before the statute of limitations runs out in August 2020.

Ms Massi Fritz, lawyer for the alleged victim, said the arrest came as a shock but “what we have been waiting and hoping for since 2012 has now finally happened”.

She said: “No rape victim should have to wait nine years to see justice be served.”

How has the UK reacted?

With Assange facing extradition proceedings and up to five years in federal prison on the US computer hacking charge, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the UK should resist handing him over.

She said: “This is all about Wikileaks and all of that embarrassing information about the activities of the American military and security services that was made public.”

Initially Ms Abbott dismissed the Swedish allegations, saying three times that Assange was never charged, but she later said he should face the criminal justice system if the Swedish government does charge him.

The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale said backing Assange is not without political risk and will not find universal favour among Labour MPs – but it means “the battle over Assange’s future will now be as much political as it is legal”.

Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the arrest, saying it showed that “in the UK, no one is above the law”.

How does the extradition process work?

Extradition between the UK and the US is set out in a 2003 treaty, which later became part of domestic law in both countries.

The process follows these steps:

  • An extradition request is made to the home secretary, who decides whether to certify the request
  • A judge decides whether to issue an arrest warrant
  • The person is arrested and an extradition hearing takes place before a judge
  • The home secretary decides whether to order extradition

Extradition lawyer Rebecca Niblock said the extradition decision lies primarily with the courts and since changes were introduced in 2013, only a judge can decide whether an extradition breaches an individual’s human rights.

The home secretary can only consider a limited number of issues when deciding whether to order an extradition, including whether the person is at risk of the death penalty.

However, if Sweden also made an extradition request, Ms Niblock said it would be for the home secretary to decide which request would take precedence, considering factors such as the seriousness of the offence and which request was made first.

The process for extradition from the UK to Sweden is similar, except that begins with a European Arrest Warrant.

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