In what has become a complicated subplot to the fallout from the recent publication of some 250,000 diplomatic cables on whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, Swedish prosecutors confirmed on Friday, Dec. 3, that they had reissued international and European arrest warrants against the site's founder, Julian Assange, for alleged sex crimes.
Assange was originally sought for questioning in September in relation to accusations by two women in Sweden whose various claims include having sex with him that was not fully consensual. A prosecutor dropped the investigation, and then a more senior prosecutor reopened it after reviewing the evidence, but Assange has not been formally charged with any crime and denies any wrongdoing. He left Sweden earlier this summer without being interviewed but was summoned back by an arrest warrant in November, a move Assange tried to appeal. On Thursday, the country's highest court refused Assange permission to appeal the arrest order, which lead prosecutors to once again seek his arrest.
The Australian-born Assange, 39, is reportedly in hiding in the U.K. he told the Guardian newspaper on Friday that he fears assassination plots by authorities and governments angered by his website's publication of the largest unauthorized release of contemporary classified information in history. He has also said he believes that the sex-crime accusations which, media reports in Sweden suggest, are not violent in nature are politically motivated.
Assange's attorneys in the U.K. and Sweden have complained to the Swedish Prosecution Authority that an arrest warrant is unnecessary, as Assange is willing to face questioning in a Swedish embassy abroad or via telephone or video link. They feel prosecutors have failed to follow international guidelines for the prosecution of foreign nationals, like providing Assange with an English translation of the witness testimony against him.
According to many legal experts, the case against Assange has been marked by false starts and mistakes on the part of Swedish prosecutors. As recently as this week, an arrest warrant sent to Scotland Yard was returned by the British police authority because the warrant listed the maximum prison sentence for only rape, the alleged crime with the harshest punishment. British officials require prison terms to be outlined for all the alleged crimes.
"This is sloppy work, intentionally or unintentionally, and it differs greatly from normal procedures in such case," Assange's Swedish attorney Bjorn Hurtig tells TIME before echoing Assange's assertion that politics is at play in the accusations. "If you look at the crimes he is wanted for, it seems to me that an international arrest warrant is a stern choice of action. Why such a rush? It might be due to external pressure." Hurtig told the Reuters news agency on Friday that he suspects "somebody has an interest in getting [Assange] to Sweden and maybe asking for him to be extradited to another country [from there]." He added that his client would fight any extradition efforts.
Lead Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny says the latest arrest warrant was issued because Swedish law prohibits formal legal interviews over a telephone or video link. "We had a case in the southern Swedish city of Helsingborg where a suspect was heard via telephone, and it was heavily criticized by the Ombudsmen for Justice as not being in accordance with existing law," she tells TIME. "The Swedish embassy in London is not Swedish territory in the sense that we can hold interrogations there without formal approval of British authorities."
Asked why she did not request that Assange voluntarily submit to questioning rather than face arrest, Ny replies, "I am not at liberty to disclose all the details regarding different actions we took in order to hold a hearing with him. But since we are unaware of his whereabouts, and we are by law prohibited from conducting hearings via telephone or video link, this was the only legal action left."
As Assange's legal team prepares a response to the arrest warrant aimed at getting him to talk, WikiLeaks is coming under increasing pressure from forces that want to shut it up. This week two U.S. Internet providers pulled the plug on the website in the space of two days, and the French government tried to ban French servers from hosting its database. As a result, WikiLeaks announced Friday it moved its website to a Swiss domain: wikileaks.ch. This followed news earlier this week that Amazon stopped hosting WikiLeaks content in the U.S. In an interview with TIME earlier this week, Assange was defiant about the latest challenges facing WikiLeaks. "We have now in our four-year history had over 100 legal attacks of various kinds and have been victorious in all of those matters," he said. "It's very important to remember the law is ... not simply what powerful people would want others to believe it is."
With reporting by Behrang Kianzad / Malmo