Why Some Charges Against Julian Assange Were Dropped

The most serious charge against the WikiLeaks founder, that of rape, does not expire until August 2020.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speak during a news conference in August 2014. (John Stilwell / AP)

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and a prominent anti-government-secrecy activist, won a partial victory in his ongoing legal drama Thursday when the statute of limitations on two allegations against him expired in Sweden. A third allegation will expire next week.

Assange, who is Australian, lived in the U.K. when two Stockholm women accused him of sexual assault and rape in August 2010. He fought his extradition in British courts until June 2012, when he fled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London after losing his final appeals. That’s where he still lives, meeting with visitors and communicating with the outside world through the Internet.

But Assange’s legal saga remains far from over: The most serious charge of rape does not expire until August 2020. And even if that allegation is dropped, British police could still arrest him for violating the terms of his bail agreement when he sought asylum at the embassy. The New York Times reported that between June 2012 and April 2015, the British government spent $14 million on a 24-hour police presence at the embassy in case Assange leaves.

Assange faced four allegations in Sweden in 2010, of which three had five-year statutes of limitations. According to The Guardian, one allegation of sexual molestation and an allegation of unlawful coercion expire Thursday; the other sexual molestation allegation expires August 18.

Marianne Ny, Sweden’s director of public prosecution, insisted Assange be interviewed in Sweden. But Ecuador invited Swedish prosecutors to interview him at the embassy. As the deadline loomed, Swedish officials reversed course in March and offered to interview him at the embassy. That did not happen before three of the charges could expire. The interview is more than a formality or courtesy: Under Swedish law, suspects must be questioned before they can be formally indicted.

Through his lawyers, Assange lamented he would be unable to clear his name.

“By failing to take Assange’s statement at the embassy, Swedish authorities have deprived him of the right to answer false allegations against him that have been widely circulated in the media, but for which he has not been charged,” Assange’s legal team said in a statement Wednesday. “If the case expires, that deprivation will become permanent, and no formal resolution will be available.”

Assange and his supporters also feared his extradition to Sweden would lead to his extradition from there to the United States, where he faces possible prosecution for espionage.

“Assange has also offered to go to Sweden if the authorities agreed not to transfer him to the United States, and they have refused,” his lawyers said.

Swedish officials previously stated that no such pledge could be made under the country’s legal system.

U.S. authorities have reportedly investigated Assange for espionage charges in connection with WikiLeaks’s 2010 publication of thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents. U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning was convicted of leaking those documents to WikiLeaks and is serving a 35-year prison sentence.

Another hurdle to Assange’s possible extradition is the U.S. death penalty, for which he could be eligible if the U.S. seeks federal espionage charges. The U.S. has not executed a person for espionage since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1952, but it remains an option under federal law. Both Sweden and the U.K. have asserted they would not extradite Assange if he could face the death penalty in the U.S.