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Wednesday July 26th, 2017 6:46PM

Rape probe dropped for WikiLeaks' Assange; uncertainty ahead

By The Associated Press
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STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden's top prosecutor on Friday dropped an investigation into a rape claim against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after almost seven years, saying that's because there's no possibility of arresting him "in the foreseeable future."

The announcement means the outspoken WikiLeaks leader no longer faces sex crime allegations in Sweden, although British police say he is still wanted for jumping bail in Britain in 2012. It does not clear Assange's name, however, and some experts say it puts him into an even more precarious legal situation if the U.S. has — as some suspect — a sealed indictment for his arrest.

Assange, 45, took refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London in 2012 to escape extradition to Sweden to answer questions about sex-crime allegations from two women. He has been there ever since, fearing that if he was in custody he might ultimately be extradited to the United States for his role at the helm of WikiLeaks, which has enraged governments around the world by publishing tens of thousands of leaked classified U.S. documents.

Per E. Samuelson, Assange's lawyer in Sweden, told The Associated Press that it was a "day of victory" for the WikiLeaks founder. He said Assange had convinced Swedish prosecutors during a November meeting last year that he was not guilty of any sex offenses.

"The truth is, he gave a very good explanation: this was consensual sex between two adults and nothing else. And he's a free man," Samuelson said.

"He's an innocent man and this case has been closed," he said, adding that Assange was "very unhappy" about the long inquiry, which he said cost Assange "five, six years of his life."

It's not known if U.S. officials have asked British police to arrest Assange because of a possible sealed U.S. indictment against him. A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman on Friday declined to comment on the case.

British officials said they do not comment on individual cases. British Prime Minister Theresa May said "any decision that is taken about U.K. action in relation to him (Assange) would be an operational matter for the police."

U.S. President Donald Trump said last month he would support any decision by the Justice Department to charge Assange.

WikiLeaks tweeted after the Swedish announcement: "UK refuses to confirm or deny whether it has already received a US extradition warrant for Julian Assange. Focus now moves to UK."

Ecuador's foreign minister, Guillaume Long, tweeted Friday that Britain "must now grant safe passage" to Assange. The South American country has granted him asylum.

Lawyer David Allen Green, who has followed the case, tweeted: "Once outside embassy, Assange more at risk from any U.S. extradition attempt than if he had gone to Sweden."

At a press conference Friday in Stockholm, Marianne Ny, chief of the Swedish Prosecution Authority, said she "has decided to discontinue the investigation" and call back the European arrest warrant for Assange.

The allegations surfaced after two women accused Assange of sexual misconduct during a visit to Stockholm in 2010. There were initially two separate allegations being investigated, but one was dropped in 2015 because the statute of limitations ran out. The rape allegation, the more serious claim, remained under investigation. Prosecutors were trying to determine, among other things, if Assange had sex with the woman while she was asleep and without using a condom.

Assange has said that all the sex was consensual.

Ny told reporters that prosecutors had been unable to make a full assessment of the case and were not making a finding on whether Assange was guilty or innocent of the allegations. She said the WikiLeaks founder had "tried to dodge all attempts at arrest" by British and Swedish authorities.

She said the case could be reopened if Assange returns to Sweden before the statute of limitations expires in 2020.

Samuelson, the lawyer in Sweden, told Swedish Radio he had been in touch with Assange via text message and the Australian had written, "Serious, Oh My God." Samuelson later told the AP that Assange had texted "I won everything."

A lawyer for the woman who alleged she was raped by Assange said "it's a scandal that a suspected rapist can avoid the judicial system and thus avoid a trial in court."

Elisabeth Massi Fritz says her client is shocked by the Swedish decision but added that "she can't change her view that Assange has exposed her to a rape."

British police said despite Sweden's decision to drop a rape investigation, Assange still faces arrest if he leaves Ecuador's embassy in London. The Metropolitan Police says there's a British warrant for Assange's arrest after he jumped bail in 2012.

But it added that Assange is now wanted for a "much less serious offense" than the original sex crimes claims, so police "will provide a level of resourcing which is proportionate to that offense."

British police kept up a round-the-clock guard outside the embassy until December 2015, when the operation was scaled back partly because of the costs, which had exceeded 11 million pounds (over $17.5 million at the time).

Assange and WikiLeaks have repeatedly infuriated U.S. officials with the widespread release of sensitive secret documents related to military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and diplomatic relations around the world. WikiLeaks also had a provocative role in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign when it published emails written by Hillary Clinton campaign officials.

Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning served seven years in prison for giving classified material to WikiLeaks. She was freed Wednesday, having had her sentence commuted by outgoing President Barack Obama before he left office.

___

Katz reported from London. Jill Lawless in London and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this story.

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