13:14, May 19 57 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-19 13:14:03

 

What happens next for Julian Assange?

Swedish prosecutors may have decided to drop their investigation into an allegation of rape against Julian Assange, but the future for the WikiLeaks founder is far from clear – and may even be more precarious.

Marianne Ny, Sweden’s director of public prosecutions, said on Friday the inquiry into the allegation dating from 2010 was being discontinued and the European arrest warrant the country had issued recalled.

She said Sweden had “exhausted the possibilities” for investigating the allegations against Assange and there was no reason to believe the 45-year-old Australian would be brought to Sweden in the foreseeable future.

But the decision does not make life any easier for Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 after claiming asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden and from there, he feared, to the US.

If he steps outside the embassy, he risks at the very least a fine. The Metropolitan police has said an arrest warrant remains open for Assange after he breached his bail conditions by failing to appear in court five years ago to accept extradition.

The UK courts could hear the case quickly and decide the offence merits only a minor fine. But the process could last many months and a judge may decide to impose the maximum penalty: a prison sentence of up to one year.

Once the bail offence has been dealt with, it might be possible for Assange to leave the UK for Ecuador, whose foreign minister, Guillaume Long, said on Friday that London “must now grant safe passage” to the former hacker.

On the other hand, leaving the Ecuadorian embassy without safe passage could expose Assange to a renewed risk of extradition. The legal commentator David Allen Green suggested that if he was arrested, Sweden could resume its case.

He tweeted that the case being dropped was “to stop expending resources” when there was “no clear path to extradition”, but if Assange “went into British custody, then the Swedes may well revisit their decision ... as extradition suddenly easier”.

Ny stressed on Friday that the investigation could be reopened if Assange returned to Sweden before the statute of limitations on the rape allegation against him ends in August 2020.

The most alarming outcome from Assange’s viewpoint is a possible extradition to the US, where he has long feared he would face trial for leaking tens of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic documents.

It is not known whether US officials have asked British police to arrest Assange because of a possible sealed indictment against him. The US justice department, White House and British government all declined to comment on that matter on Friday.

From Assange’s perspective, the threat by Donald Trump’s administration to imprison him might seem ungrateful: WikiLeaks published awkward emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in the run-up to the November election. Assange’s organisation also exposed plotting inside the Democratic national committee to ruin the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and was touted by Trump associates such as Roger Stone as the force that would finish off Clinton.

“I love WikiLeaks,”Trump himself said at a rally a month before his election as president. Sean Hannity, an extreme Trump backer, conducted a three-part Fox News interview with Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy after the election.

But Trump said last month he would support any decision to charge Assange and the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has suggested his arrest and prosecution could be an American 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. The CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has described WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service” and threat to US national security.

The Washington Post has reported that prosecutors have been drafting a memo that looks at charges against Assange and WikiLeaks members that possibly include conspiracy, theft of government property and violations of the Espionage Act.

WikiLeaks has a long track record of publishing classified military material. In 2010 alone, the group published an estimated 90,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan, 400,000 documents relating to the Iraq war and 250,000 leaked state department cables.

Perhaps the most famous material in those leaks was footage of a US helicopter firing on and killing Iraqi civilians in 2007. The source for that material was army private Chelsea Manning, then Bradley, who was released after seven years of imprisonment on Wednesday morning.