Swedish prosecutors said Monday they are reopening a rape case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and seek his extradition after he has served his 50-week prison term in Britain for jumping bail.
Eva-Marie Persson, Sweden's deputy director of public prosecutions, told a news conference in Stockholm that "there is still a probable cause to suspect that Assange committed a rape." She added: "It is my assessment that a new questioning of Assange is required."
Swedish prosecutors filed preliminary charges - a step short of formal charges - against Assange after he visited the country in 2010, following complaints from two Swedish women who said they were the victims of sex crimes committed by Assange.
The Australian secret-spiller left Sweden for Britain in September 2010, and took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition.
After almost seven years holed up in the building, he was arrested by British police April 11 when Ecuador revoked his political asylum, accusing him of everything from meddling in the nation's foreign affairs to poor hygiene.
He is currently in London's Belmarsh Prison serving a 50-week sentence for jumping bail in 2012. He is also being held on a U.S. extradition warrant for allegedly hacking into a Pentagon computer.
While a Swedish case of alleged sexual misconduct was dropped in 2017 when the statute of limitations expired, a rape allegation remains. Swedish authorities have had to shelf it because Assange was living at the embassy at the time and there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden.
The statute of limitations on that case expires next August. Assange has denied wrongdoing, asserting that the allegations were politically motivated and that the sex was consensual.
Julian Assange's Swedish lawyer Per E. Samuelsen told Swedish broadcaster SVT on Monday he was "very suprised" by the decision to reopen the case.
"I do not understand the Swedish prosecutor's ... reasoning for reopening a 10-year old case," he said.
Persson said a European arrest warrant will be issued for Assange. A Swedish court would formally issue the extradition request, which Assange could appeal.
She added that while there is a risk the case may cut close to the statute of limitations deadline, "there is also a chance that we will be able to get him extradited before August 17 next year."
The Swedish move would leave British authorities to decide whether to extradite Assange to Sweden or to the United States, where he is wanted separately for allegedly hacking into a Pentagon computer.
There was no immediate reaction from Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the lawyer for the woman who reported being raped by Assange.
The 47-year-old Australian met the women in connection with a lecture in August 2010 in Stockholm. One was involved in organizing an event for Sweden's center-left Social Democratic Party and offered to host Assange at her apartment. The other was in the audience.
A police officer who heard the women's accounts decided there was reason to suspect they were victims of sex crimes and handed the case to a prosecutor.
Neither of the alleged victims has been named publicly.
Assange faces a maximum of four years in prison in Sweden.
The British extradition process is not swift, and Assange could appeal several times if decisions go against him. It's expected it would take a year or longer for him to be sent to the United States or possibly to Sweden even if he ultimately loses in court.
WikiLeaks' Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the decision to reopen the case against Assange "will give Julian a chance to clear his name."
He said in a statement that Swedish prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson had been under "intense political pressure" to reopen the case, and criticized authorities for "mishandling" it from the start.
EARLIER ASSANGE COVERAGE
WikiLeaks' Julian Assange sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for bail-jumping
WikiLeaks' Julian Assange charged after arrest at Ecuador embassy in London
Julian Assange rape allegation: Swedish prosecutors to reopen case against Wikileaks founder