In June 2012, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London's upmarket Knightsbridge, saying he was afraid that if he were sent to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations he could be further extradited to the United States to face trial for publishing leaked classified documents. He was granted asylum that August and been inside the embassy ever since.
The allegations against Assange were reported to authorities in Sweden in mid-August 2010. Over the course of the past week, three of the four potential charges he might have faced have expired as, under Swedish law, a suspect must be charged for the offenses of unlawful coercion and sexual molestation within five years of the alleged incident. He could still face charges on a rape allegation for a further five years.
Assange, who has always denied the claims, has not had formal charges brought against him because prosecutors have been unable to interview him. He has refused to leave the embassy to go to Sweden, and, until recently, Swedish prosecutors had refused to interview him in London. They changed their position earlier this year, but Ecuador reportedly did not give the required permission: "An interview is necessary for the investigation," a spokesman for the Swedish Prosecution Authority said.
"This, of course, seems counterintuitive," the London-based lawyer and legal commentator David Allen Green said. "It surely cannot be the case that Assange can rely on his own refusal to go to Sweden to escape answering the allegations. However, this does seem to be the case."
Even with the charges expiring, it is not likely that Assange will be leaving the Ecuadorean embassy anytime soon. If he sets foot outside the building, Britain could still extradite him to Sweden on the remaining rape allegation. He is also liable in both England and Wales for violating his bail conditions in order to seek asylum with Ecuador. According to Green, this could carry a 10-week custodial sentence. Assange could also be deported from the United Kingdom to his native Australia.
"Assange will not be able to leave the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has remained for over three years under protection of asylum," Carey Shenkman, his US-based lawyer, told DW. "The United Kingdom says it will arrest Assange anyway, regardless whether the Swedish case drops. Ecuador granted Assange asylum because of the US attempts to prosecute Assange and WikiLeaks, a publishing organization, for espionage. The UK refuses to confirm or deny whether it has received a US extradition request. The UK will offer no promises that it will not extradite Assange to the United States."
US officials have said, however, that they have not made a formal extradition request, and if Assange were to face the death penalty in the United States for helping to disseminate the documents, Swedish authorities have said they would not send him there to face trial.
The issue has severely strained relations between the UK and Ecuador. The United Kingdom has even filed a formal complaint with Quito. "Ecuador must recognize that its decision to harbor Mr. Assange more than three years ago has prevented the proper course of justice," UK Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Minister Hugo Swire said in a statement. "As a result, some of the serious sexual allegations against him will now expire. It is completely unacceptable that the British taxpayer has had to foot the bill for this abuse of diplomatic relations."
Ecuador hit back, with acting Foreign Minister Xavier Lasso saying that "the British government has the sole responsibility for such an invasive and unnecessary police deployment."
Over 10 million pounds (14 million euros/$15.5 million) has been spent on maintaining a 24-hour police presence around the embassy, ready to apprehend Assange should he emerge. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Service confirmed the price tag, but refused to reveal the number of officers deployed to the embassy.
The rape allegation will not expire until 2020. The Ecuadorean authorities have said that Assange can remain in the embassy as long as he wishes. During his years there, he has been interviewed by several journalists and has occasionally addressed audiences via video link. His celebrity visitors have included Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga, Eric Cantona and Pamela Anderson. Ken Loach, the film director, has donated a running machine so that Assange can exercise. For now, this strange indoor existence looks set to continue.
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