Julian Assange is to be investigated in Sweden over a rape case dating from August 2010, prosecutors announced on Monday.
The WikiLeaks founder, currently held in Belmarsh prison in London, now faces possible extradition from Britain.
“My assessment is there is still probably cause [to investigate] rape and a lesser offence,” Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecutions, said.
Sweden had first issued an arrest warrant and declared Assange an “internationally wanted suspect” in November 2010.
But after Assange skipped bail in the UK and went into hiding at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the extradition order was impossible to enforce.
In November 2016, Assange was interviewed by Ecuadorian prosecutors after an agreement was reached between Sweden and Ecuador to cooperate in criminal investigations.
“Mr Assange was recently sentenced to 50 weeks in prison [in the UK],” Persson said. “He will serve 25 weeks before he is eligible for release.
“My intention is to submit to the district court today to appoint a public defender. It is also my intention in the near future [to ask] that the district court order Mr Assange remanded in absentia.
“I will proceed to issue a European arrest warrant providing for him to be extradited to Sweden after serving his sentence in the UK,” she said, at a press conference in Stockholm.
The US also wants to extradite Assange over his publishing of leaked military videos showing the killing of civilians in Iraq, as well as thousands of other documents. Persson said she expected the US to submit a formal extradition request to the UK no later than June 14, 2019. A decision on which extradition request would be given greater priority “will be left entirely to the British authorities”.
“If he’s extradited to Sweden, he must not be extradited to a third country without the consent of the British authorities,” she said.
“A future Brexit will not, according to available information, impact on the case.”
Julian Assange’s Swedish lawyer said he was “very surprised” by the decision and said his client was innocent.
“I do not understand the Swedish prosecutor’s… reasoning for reopening a 10-year old case,” Per E Samuelsen told Swedish broadcaster SVT.
Swedish prosecutors had filed preliminary charges in 2010 after two women said they were victims of sex crimes committed by Assange when he visited the country.
Seven years later, a case of alleged sexual misconduct was dropped when the statute of limitations expired.
That left a rape allegation, and the case was closed as it could not be pursued while Assange was living at the embassy and there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden.
The statute of limitations on that case does not expire until August 17, 2020.
“The reason the previous investigation was closed was not through lack of evidence, but because Julian Assange was in the Ecuadorian embassy,” said Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan.
Swedish prosecutors could interview Assange in prison via videolink, they said. “While Mr Assange is serving his sentence in the UK, I intend to further the investigation as much as possible,” Persson said.
“I would like to make the following very clear: My decision to re-open the preliminary investigation is not an indication of whether to file an indictment with the court,” Persson added.
In a statement, WikiLeaks said there had been “considerable political pressure” on Swedish prosecutors to reopen their investigation. “Its reopening will give Julian a chance to clear his name,” Kristinn Hrafnsson, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief, said in a statement.
Assange has denied the allegations against him, asserting that they were politically motivated and that the sex with the two women who have accused him was consensual.
The 47-year-old Australian met the women in connection with a lecture in August 2010 in Stockholm. One was involved in organising an event for Sweden’s centre-left Social Democratic Party and offered to host Assange at her apartment. The other was in the audience.
Assange left Sweden for Britain in September 2010. In November that year, a Stockholm court approved a request to detain Assange for questioning.
He was arrested by British police on April 11 after a change in leadership in Ecuador revoked his political asylum. A letter signed by more than 70 MPs, across the political divide, urged Home Secretary Sajid Javid to prioritise any extradition request to Sweden over any from the United States.
“There are a couple of factors Sajid Javid has to consider,” added Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan. “There is the relative seriousness of the offences – for the American case, that’s about official secrets and treason – and in the Swedish case, an allegation of rape – and it’s up to the home secretary to compare those and decide which is of greater seriousness.
“Then there’s also the issue of chronology – which extradition request came first. And it also seems in the Extradition Act that there is a distinction between European and non-European requests – the suggestion seems to be that a European arrest warrant request would get precendence over a non-European one, but given the close relationship between Britain and the United States, it’s entirely up to the home secretary to make a decision at his discretion.”