LONDON | Julian Assange and his supporters warily welcomed a surprise U-turn Friday by Swedish prosecutors, who now say they are willing to come to London to quiz the WikiLeaks founder over alleged sex crimes.
The reversal, however, doesn’t mean the anti-secrecy activist will soon be leaving the Ecuadorean embassy in London, his home and prison for almost three years.
Since 2010, Swedish prosecutors have sought to question Assange over sex allegations made by two women. Assange fought extradition through the British courts and, when that failed, holed up inside Ecuador’s small diplomatic mission. British police stand guard around the clock at the building, ready to arrest him if he steps outside.
Assange denies the allegations against him, and believes extradition to Sweden is merely a first step in efforts to remove him to the U.S., where WikiLeaks infuriated officials by publishing secret documents including 250,000 State Department cables. Former U.S. Army soldier Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence for passing those documents to WikiLeaks and the U.S. investigation into WikiLeaks is ongoing.
On Friday, Swedish prosecutors reversed their long refusal to question Assange inside his London bolt hole, citing the five-year statute of limitations on some of the allegations against him.
One of Assange’s defense lawyers, Per Samuelson, called the about-face “a great victory for Julian Assange,” and indicated the 43-year-old Australian would likely agree to be questioned.
“This is something we’ve demanded for over four years,” Samuelson told The Associated Press after speaking to Assange on Friday. “Julian Assange wants to be interviewed so he can be exonerated.”
Sweden ordered Assange’s arrest in August 2010. He has not been formally indicted, but he faces allegations of rape, sexual molestation and illegal coercion involving two women. The latter two allegations expire after five years, rape after 10 years.
Lead Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny said the looming deadline had prompted her change of mind.
“My view has always been that to perform an interview with him at the Ecuadorean embassy in London would lower the quality of the interview, and that he would need to be present in Sweden in any case should there be a trial in the future,” Ny said in a statement.
“Now that time is of the essence, I have viewed it therefore necessary to accept such deficiencies in the investigation and likewise take the risk that the interview does not move the case forward.”
It was unclear how soon a prosecutor could come to London.
Ny said she had asked Assange’s legal team on Friday if she could interview him in London and have his DNA sample taken with a swab. She said permission was also being sought from Ecuadorean authorities.
“We cannot say when we will go there,” Rosander said. “We cannot make any guesses, because it depends on circumstances that are outside our reach. We need to get a go-ahead from the British and the Ecuadorean authorities.”
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “ready to assist the Swedish prosecutor as required.” British officials would be overjoyed to see a resolution to the stalemate, which has cost taxpayers 10 million pounds ($15 million) in police costs.
Britain has previously said “voluntarily providing a statement or taking part in an interview are issues which should be agreed between the Swedish prosecutor, Mr. Assange and the Ecuadorean Embassy.”
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, said Ecuador had offered to have Assange questioned when he arrived at the embassy years ago.
“If Ecuador’s offer from 1,000 days ago to take a statement had been accepted, we would have all been spared a lot of money and a lot of annoyance,” he tweeted.
Friday’s move comes after Assange appealed his detention order to Sweden’s Supreme Court, which earlier this week asked the country’s prosecutor-general to issue an opinion.
Samuelson said the prosecutor-general had probably ordered Ny to move the case forward by traveling to London. Rosander, of the prosecutor’s office, declined to comment.
Journalist and filmmaker John Pilger, a member of Assange’s legal defense fund, said the Swedish prosecutor’s delay in offering to come to London had “kept Assange trapped in the U.K. while the U.S. continues to pursue its unprecedented espionage case” against him and WikiLeaks.
“She has wasted four and a half years of Assange’s life … Her behavior is scandalous,” Pilger said.
WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said the Swedish offer did not mean Assange would be able to walk out of the embassy anytime soon.
“We have to worry about the ongoing criminal investigation in the United States,” he said.
Ny has dismissed claims of any U.S. involvement in the Swedish sex crimes investigation.
Ritter reported from Are, Sweden. AP writer Jan M. Olsen contributed from Copenhagen.