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Monday November 20th, 2017 12:19PM

WikiLeaks' Assange calls end of rape case important victory

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 by prosecutor Marianne Ny means the outspoken WikiLeaks leader no longer faces sex crime allegations in Sweden, although British police said was 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.

Speaking from the balcony of Ecuador's London embassy, where he took refuge in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, Assange said his seven-year legal ordeal — which he called unjust detention — "is not something that I can forgive."

He says his battle is not over, and "the proper war is just commencing." Assange, 45, believes the United States wants him extradited and arrested in connection with WikiLeaks' publication of classified U.S. documents.

He nonetheless called Sweden's decision to drop the rape investigation "an important victory for me and for the U.N. human rights system."

Assange has been holed up at Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition to answer questions about sex-crime allegations from two women. The arrangement was necessary, he had said, to keep Swedish authorities from turning him over 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.

Assange said Friday his legal team would contact U.K. officials to seek a way forward in resolving his status. British police say they still intend to arrest him, if he leaves the Ecuadorean Embassy.

But London's Metropolitan Police 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 also said he would be "happy" to discuss the case with the U.S. Department of Justice despite U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying that Assange's arrest was a priority.

"We've already begun to step up our efforts and whenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail," Sessions said last month.

U.S. President Donald Trump said last month he would support any decision by the Justice Department to charge Assange, who contends the United States should recognize his First Amendment rights as a journalist.

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.

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."

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

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.

At a press conference Friday in Stockholm, 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.

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."

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.

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's 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 former President Barack Obama before he left office.

___

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

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