Swedish prosecutors have reopened an investigation into a rape allegation made against Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange in 2010.
The inquiry has been revived at the request of the alleged victim’s lawyer.
Assange, who denies the charges, has avoided extradition to Sweden for seven years after seeking refuge at the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012.
The 47-year-old was evicted last month and sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for breaching his bail conditions.
He is currently being held at Belmarsh prison in London.
Swedish prosecutors originally decided to drop the rape investigation two years ago, saying they felt unable to take the case forward while Assange remained holed up inside the Ecuadorean embassy.
But on Monday, Sweden’s deputy director of public prosecutions, Eva-Marie Persson, announced that the case would be reopened. “There is still probable cause to suspect that Mr Assange committed rape,” she said.
“Now that he has left Ecuador’s embassy, the conditions in the case have changed and… the conditions are in place once again to pursue the case,” she added.
His release from the embassy, and the subsequent decision to reopen the inquiry, is likely to raise the question of which extradition request should take precedence: that of Sweden or the US.
The US is seeking Assange’s extradition from the UK over his alleged role in the release of classified military and diplomatic material by Wikileaks in 2010.
Australian-born Assange faces a charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion in the US, He is accused of participating in one of the largest ever leaks of government secrets, which could result in a prison term of up to five years.
In a statement, Wikileaks said the reopening of the rape case would “give [Assange] a chance to clear his name”.
“There has been considerable political pressure on Sweden to reopen their investigation, but there has always been political pressure surrounding this case,” its editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said in a statement.
A lawyer for Assange told Swedish broadcaster SVT that the prosecutor’s decision was “embarrassing for Sweden”, adding that his client wanted to resolve the case but feared being extradited to the US.
What happens now?
Ms Persson told reporters on Monday that a European Arrest Warrant would now be issued.
“The prosecutor will shortly request that Julian Assange be detained in his absence suspected on probable cause for an allegation of rape,” she said.
Ms Persson added that the UK authorities would decide on which extradition request to follow if both Sweden and the US are competing.
Nick Vamos, former head of extradition at the Crown Prosecution Service, told Reuters news agency that the UK proceedings should not take more than 18 months.
Considering Assange’s potential objections to extradition, Mr Vamos said that he did not think courts would accept the US case was politically motivated.
But he said Assange may be able to argue that his likely treatment in the US prison system would breach his human rights and that could not receive a fair trial due to his notoriety and links to political scandals.
What is the Swedish investigation about?
Assange was accused of rape and other sexual offences against two women following a Wikileaks conference in Stockholm in 2010. He has always denied the allegations, saying the sex was consensual.
He also faced investigations for molestation and unlawful coercion, but these cases were dropped in 2015 because time had run out.
Prosecutors have decided to reopen the rape case before the statute of limitations expires in August 2020.
On Saturday, the alleged victim’s lawyer, Elizabeth Massi Fritz, said Assange’s arrest came as a shock but “what we have been waiting and hoping for since 2012 has now finally happened”.
She said: “No rape victim should have to wait nine years to see justice be served.”