Swedish prosecutors on Friday dropped a rape investigation into Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, bringing to an end a seven-year legal stand-off.
Yet, British police said he would still be arrested if he left the Ecuadorean embassy in the UK capital, London, where he has been holed up since 2012.
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Assange, 45, took refuge there to avoid extradition to Sweden amid fears that he would have been handed over to the US to face prosecution over the publication of classified military and diplomatic documents by WikiLeaks.
“The investigation is discontinued,” Marianne Ny, the director of public prosecution, told reporters in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm.
“In order to proceed with the case, Julian Assange would have to be formally notified of the criminal suspicions against him. We cannot expect to receive assistance from Ecuador regarding this,” Ny said.
“We are not making a statement about his guilt.”
‘An important victory’
“Today is an important victory for me,” said Assange, giving a clenched fist salute as he emerged onto the balcony of the embassy on Friday.
“The road is far from over. The war, the proper war, is just commencing,” a pale-looking Assange told a crowd of reporters and a handful of supporters brandishing placards assembled under the balcony.
He promised that WikiLeaks would continue its “fight” for government transparency and digital rights.
Christophe Marchand, a member of Assange’s legal team, had earlier welcomed the suspension of the investigation as “the end of his nightmare”.
“We have been waiting a long time for this decision,” he said, adding: “Julian Assange has been a victim of a huge abuse of procedure. We are very pleased and very moved”.
Shortly after the announcement, Assange posted a picture of himself smiling broadly, without comment.
— Defend Assange Campaign (@DefendAssange) May 19, 2017
Later on Friday, British police said separately they would still arrest Assange if he walked out of the embassy because he had broken his conditions for bail by failing to surrender on June 29, 2012 for extradition to Sweden.
“Now that the situation has changed and the Swedish authorities have discontinued their investigation into that matter, Mr Assange remains wanted for a much less serious offence,” it said in a statement.
“The Metropolitan Police Service is obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the Embassy.”
Assange said his lawyers had contacted British authorities in the hope of starting a “dialogue” over his future.
In a Twitter post, WikiLeaks said the UK has refused to comment whether it has received a US warrant to extradite Assange, and added: “Focus now moves to UK”.
UK refuses to confirm or deny whether it has already received a US extradition warrant for Julian Assange. Focus now moves to UK.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) May 19, 2017
‘It’s a scandal’
The rape accusation against Assange dates from August 2010 when an alleged victim, who says she met him at a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm a few days earlier, filed a complaint.
She said she was “shocked” by the Swedish prosecutors’ decision to drop the investigation, according to her lawyer.
“It is a scandal that a suspected rapist can escape justice and thereby avoid the courts … no decision to (end the case) can make her change that Assange exposed her to rape,” Elisabeth Fritz, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said in a statement.
Assange, however, has repeatedly reiterated his innocence and said the sex was consensual, insisting that the accusations are “politically motivated”.
The probe has suffered from endless procedural complications since it began in 2010.
Per Samuelsson, Assange’s Swedish lawyer, last month filed a new motion demanding that the arrest warrant be lifted after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April that arresting Assange would be “a priority”.
In a letter sent to the Swedish government on May 8, Ecuador condemned “the obvious lack of progress” despite Swedish officials questioning Assange at the embassy in November 2016.
“The Ecuadorian government have been putting pressure on the Swedes to bring about some sort of solution to this long-running stand-off,” Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from London, said.
The probe was dropped “largely on a technicality,” he said. Prosecutors “simply cannot continue with the case because they cannot serve Assange with the necessary documents to do so, rather than a belief on whether he’s guilty or not.”
Barker added that the US was preparing to press charges against Assange.
“We believe the sealed indictment has been prepared, although we don’t know what is in it,” he said.
“The Obama administration felt charges couldn’t be brought and things were very much in flux and they seem to be in flux even now.”
A UN panel has said that Assange had been “arbitrarily detained” and should be able to claim compensation from Britain and Sweden. The two countries have dismissed the report.
Assange, who is Australian, was granted asylum by Ecuador and has been able to evade justice because he is on Ecuador’s sovereign territory by being in the embassy.