LONDON — Swedish prosecutors said Monday that they are reopening an investigation of a rape allegation against Julian Assange, a move that could affect efforts to extradite the WikiLeaks founder to the United States.
Speaking at a news conference in Stockholm, Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecutions, said there is “still a probable cause to suspect that Assange committed rape” in 2010 and that “a new questioning of Assange is required.”
Assange denies the allegation.
Sweden discontinued its investigation in 2017 because authorities said they were unable to advance the case while Assange was claiming asylum inside the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. But last month, he was expelled from the embassy, arrested by British police and sentenced to 50 weeks in a British prison for skipping bail. “The circumstances in this case have changed,” Persson said.
The inquiry has been reopened at the accuser’s request.
Sweden could request to interview Assange in prison or seek extradition, in which case Britain would face two competing requests.
This month, Assange told a British court that he would not consent to being extradited to the United States, where he is wanted on a charge of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack a Defense Department computer. U.S. officials have been investigating Assange and Manning for their roles in the release of classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010.
The U.S. government is expected to begin to outline its case for extradition in a British court next month, a process that could take months or years. If convicted, Assange would face a maximum sentence of five years in a federal prison.
But before that could happen, it would be up to Britain’s home secretary to decide which extradition request, if either, to prioritize. Assange’s lawyers can challenge either or both in court.
Extradition experts said Britain’s decision probably would rest on factors such as the gravity of the allegations, the chronology of events and which request came first.
Rebecca Niblock, an extradition lawyer with the London-based firm Kingsley Napley, anticipated that the Swedish case would take precedence over the U.S. one. “It would be very difficult politically to say that a computer intrusion offense is more serious than an allegation of rape,” she said.
Daniel Sternberg, a barrister specializing in extradition law at Temple Garden Chambers in London, said Swedish investigators probably would be allowed to interview Assange in British prison if they wished. “But they cannot compel him to answer their questions,” he said.
Sternberg agreed that a rape allegation is serious, but he assumed the Americans would argue that the conspiracy charge involved national security.
If Assange were extradited to Sweden, the United States could still pursue an extradition request with Swedish authorities.
Persson, the Swedish prosecutor, said that according to information from British authorities, Assange will “serve 25 weeks of his sentence before he can be released.”
She added: “I am well aware of the fact that an extradition process is ongoing in the U.K. and that he could be extradited to the U.S. In the event of a conflict between a European arrest warrant and a request for extradition from the U.S., U.K. authorities will decide on the order of priority. The outcome of this process is impossible to predict.”
Swedish prosecutors argued Monday that their case is urgent, because the statute of limitations will expire in August 2020.
After a trip to Stockholm in August 2010, Assange was accused of sexual misconduct and assault by two Swedish women. Assange denied the claims, saying the sex was consensual. In 2015, Swedish prosecutors dropped their investigation of some of the allegations — sexual molestation and unlawful coercion — because the statute of limitations had expired, but they continued their investigation of a rape allegation.
WikiLeaks Editor Kristinn Hrafnsson said reopening the Swedish case would give Assange “a chance to clear his name.”
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the attorney for Assange’s accuser, said in a statement to The Washington Post that her client is “hopeful that she will be able to get restitution, and that justice will prevail. Her faith in the Swedish judicial system has been restored.”
She added: “This case now needs to be handled swiftly. We cannot afford to lose any more time.”