The multiple sexual assault investigations facing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dropped to only one case on Thursday, after Swedish prosecutors reached the time limit for investigating the remaining three crimes.
For almost five years, Swedish prosecutors have been investigating Assange for allegations of molestation, unlawful coercion and rape, all made against him by two women after Assange’s brief 10-day visit to Sweden in 2010.
The statute of limitations has expired for the molestation and unlawful coercion investigations. However, Assange can still be investigated for the rape accusation until 2020.
In a statement, Assange called the prosecutors’ actions “beyond incompetence”.
“I am extremely disappointed. There was no need for any of this. I am an innocent man,” he said.
The investigations intersect with US charges against Assange for publishing classified material through WikiLeaks on the war in Afghanistan in 2010. Assange has not faced a trial in either Sweden or the US.
Since Sweden ordered for his arrest in 2010, Assange has not stepped foot in the country, fearing that authorities will extradite him to the US.
‘Abuse of diplomatic relations’
Instead, Assange sought asylum in the UK’s Ecuadorian embassy and has been living there with London police stationed outside, ready to apprehend him under a European Arrest Warrant should he leave. The around-the-clock operation has been estimated to cost the force around $15 million.
Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement on its website on Thursday that it intended to make a “formal protest” to Ecuador over Assange, calling his residence at the embassy an “abuse of diplomatic relations”.
In the statement, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister of state, Hugo Swire, described Ecuador’s failure to bring the situation to an end as “a growing stain on the country’s reputation”.
The Ecuadorian embassy granted Assange political asylum in 2012, noting that “Assange is a communication professional internationally awarded for his struggle on freedom of expression, freedom of press and human rights in general”.
Other countries have been less enthusiastic about Assange’s work as WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief. In 2010, after WikiLeaks published US military files leaked by former soldier Chelsea Manning, US Vice President Joe Biden likened Assange to a “hi-tech terrorist”.
The Swedish investigations have stretched on for so long mainly due to disputes over how prosecutors should interview Assange.
Assange had been refusing to fly to Sweden for an interview. In turn, prosecutors said they would not interview Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy, with lead prosecutor Marrianne Ny claiming it would “lower the quality” of the interview.
“Julian Assange, on his own accord, has evaded prosecution by seeking refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador,” Ny said in a statement.
Assange’s lawyer Thomas Olsson last week told Swedish Television that Assange’s lawyers had for several years requested prosecutors to come and interrogate Assange “but had not had a reply”.
“What people forget is that Julian Assange voluntarily attended the first interrogation and answered the questions he was asked,” Olsson said.
“Then the investigation was closed and a new prosecutor arrived on the scene to open it again.”
In March, as three of the investigations inched towards their time limits, Swedish prosecutors agreed to hold the interview in the embassy. Yet the embassy lagged in giving permission to the request, and time ran out with no interview taking place.
The two women accusing Assange of sexual assault met up with Assange during his 2010 visit to Sweden, during which Assange arranged to stay with one of the women at her apartment.
Supporters of Assange have claimed that the sexual assault investigations are being used to persecute Assange for his work.
In 2010, a colleague of Assange’s and the Swedish WikiLeaks coordinator told The Guardian: “This is a normal police investigation…Of course, the enemies of WikiLeaks may try to use this, but it begins with the two women and Julian. It is not the CIA sending a woman in a short skirt.”
WikiLeaks, whose Twitter bio reads, “We open governments”, came to prominence in 2010 after it published more than 750,000 classified documents on the Afghanistan war.
Assange considers WikiLeaks’ distribution of leaked files to be in an intermediary protection role, allowing the press to publish leaks without being prosecuted for it.
An Australian national, Assange still continues to reside in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he lives in a 4m by 4.5m room.