Swedish prosecutors announced today that they are dropping a years-long rape investigation against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange, 45, has spent the past five years hiding out in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, sheltered both from extradition to Sweden, where he faced rape charges, and possible extradition to the United States, where he is under investigation for the release of thousands of highly classified documents leaked by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
But just because Sweden is dropping the rape charge doesn’t mean he’s free.
British officials said today they would still arrest Assange if he stepped beyond the embassy’s grounds — it turns out they have a warrant for his arrest for a different charge: failure to appear in court in the United Kingdom. And the US Justice Department is reportedly preparing charges against him. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called Assange’s arrest a “priority.”
Nor does this mean Sweden believes him to be innocent.
“I can conclude, based on the evidence, that probable cause for this crime still exists,” Marianne Ny, the lead prosecutor in Sweden, told reporters today.
The case revolves around accusations from two women leveled against Assange back in 2010 in Sweden. In both cases, the women say the sex began as consensual but when they wanted to stop, it became forced. And in at least one of the cases, the accuser saw her identity tarnished as a result of stepping forward.
But the Swedish lead prosecutors believe the investigation has been completely stymied by Assange’s continued protection by Ecuador. Ny vowed to reopen prosecution — but only if Assange shows up in Sweden before 2020, when the statue of limitations runs out on the case. That’s unlikely to happen.
A lawyer for one of the alleged victims called the dropped charges a “scandal” — and the accuser herself is reportedly “shocked” by the decision.
Like everything related to Assange, reaction to the news was polarized and contentious, with supporters crowing that trumped-up charges had finally been dropped against an innocent man, and others dismayed that justice had been thwarted yet again.
Meanwhile, Assange tweeted his innocence.
Detained for 7 years without charge by while my children grew up and my name was slandered. I do not forgive or forget.— Julian Assange (@JulianAssange) May 19, 2017
Why Assange — and this case — is so polarizing
Julian Assange is one of the most polarizing characters in world politics today.
He made no attempt to hide his efforts to sway the 2016 elections in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump by exposing thousands of pages of emails exchanged by members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. And as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, Assange “has leaked thousands of secret, sensitive US government documents in an overt attempt to damage America’s position in the world.”
As the New York Times points out, Assange is a unique problem for the Trump administration. During the campaign, Trump benefited greatly from WikiLeaks’ targeted campaign to undermine the Clinton campaign with massive email dumps. “I love WikiLeaks!” Trump crowed from the stump.
And back in early January, Trump sided with Assange — against the US intelligence community.
But since then, Assange has proved a thornier issue than Trump might have realized —especially as the evidence quickly mounted that Russian intelligence had used WikiLeaks as a conduit for dumps of Hillary Clinton’s emails as a means of undermining the presidential election.
In April, CIA Director Mike Pompeo railed against WikiLeaks in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. "It's time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is,” he said, “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
Even Trump has had to tone down his joyful support for WikiLeaks now that he’s in the Oval Office.
In April, the Associated Press asked Trump what he thought of Assange and WikiLeaks. Trump replied: “When WikiLeaks came out, all I was just saying is, ‘Well, look at all this information here, this is pretty good stuff.’” But when asked whether he was in “support of Assange,” he demurred. “I don’t support or unsupport,” he responded, adding that the decision to prosecute Assange would be up to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
For his part, Assange has continued to insist he is merely a truth teller and warrior for transparency — and sees the charges against him as nothing more than an attempt to muzzle free speech.
In an op-ed he penned for the Washington Post back in April, he wrote:
The truths we publish are inconvenient for those who seek to avoid one of the magnificent hallmarks of American life — public debate. Governments assert that WikiLeaks’ reporting harms security. Some claim that publishing facts about military and national security malfeasance is a greater problem than the malfeasance itself. ...
Quite simply, our motive is identical to that claimed by the New York Times and The Post — to publish newsworthy content. Consistent with the U.S. Constitution, we publish material that we can confirm to be true irrespective of whether sources came by that truth legally or have the right to release it to the media.
But what about the rape charges?
Whistleblower, truth teller, hero, self-aggrandizer, democracy underminer — whatever the adjective, the story of WikiLeaks has also intersected with a story of sexual misconduct.
Two women — referred to in the media as merely “Miss A” and “Miss W” to protect their identities — separately had sex with Julian Assange in Sweden in mid-August 2010. Later the same week, Assange began the process of establishing residency in Sweden to set up a base for WikiLeaks. But then on August 18, 2010, Swedish police charged him with “molestation” in one case and rape in the other. Assange denies all charges, insisting the sex was consensual in both cases.
The case went back and forth that fall of 2010, during which time Assange left Sweden for London. Over the next two years, he fought extradition to Sweden over the charges. (The molestation case was dropped after the statute of limitations ran out.)
Assange lost his final appeal against extradition in the early summer of 2012 — at which point he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy. He has remained there ever since.
The BBC has an excellent rundown of the timeline of Assange’s legal woes and appeals, as well as his efforts to present himself as the victim rather than the victimizer.
But while Sweden may have dropped the rape charges against Assange, the swirl of controversy around his actions isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.