London/Stockholm: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange moved closer to freedom on Friday after Swedish prosecutors moved to drop a rape investigation against him, leaving the door open for him to emerge from his self-imposed exile in a London embassy.
Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny said on Friday that her office will drop an investigation into Assange regarding suspected rape. Assange’s seven years of evading questioning has made it impossible to handle the case properly.
“It is unfortunate that we haven’t been able to conduct this investigation the way we would have wanted," Ny said at a press conference. “We have used the means at our disposal to advance the investigation with satisfactory quality and we have to face the fact that this is where we stand today."
Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012, after exhausting options in UK courts to avoid extradition over the allegations stemming from a 2010 trip to Sweden. He has refused to return to the Scandinavian country, citing risks he will be extradited to the US over the release of secret documents.
The 45-year-old Assange managed to command attention even in his hideout in London’s Tony Knightsbridge district. Last year, WikiLeaks injected itself into the middle of the US presidential race by publishing hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Assange’s lawyer, Per E. Samuelson, told Swedish media that Assange could leave the embassy soon.
“It’s a big victory day for Julian Assange," Samuelson said.
London’s Metropolitan Police said the prosecutor’s decision left Assange wanted for a “much less serious offence" and the police “will provide a level of resourcing which is proportionate to that offence."
“The priority for the MPS must continue to be arresting those who are currently wanted in the capital in connection with serious violent or sexual offences for the protection of Londoners," the police said.
One police car with three cops inside was parked outside the embassy on early on Friday, with more arriving to control a growing crowd of journalists and photographers.
London police ended the round-the-clock guards at the Ecuadorian embassy in October after anger over the cost.
Assange’s Twitter feed had a picture of him smiling and looking relaxed posted on Friday morning.
“He is free to leave the embassy when he wants to," Assange attorney Samuelson said to Swedish Radio, according to news agency TT. “He’s of course happy and relieved but is critical of the fact that this has been going on for such a long time.’’
The Australian was the world’s best-known activist hacker in 2012 when he walked into Ecuador’s embassy, a modest row house in London, applying for humanitarian asylum rather than face questioning in Sweden over accusations of rape and sexual molestation.
He said American officials made up the case in an attempt to have him extradited. The US opened a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks after the organization published hundreds of thousands of leaked state department cables in 2010.
Although he has not been formally charged, Assange has often implied—-without much hard evidence—that the US would gladly try to assassinate him.
WikiLeaks played a central role in the 2016 presidential race when it published emails stolen through hacking the Democratic National Committee and later from John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the hacking in an effort to interfere with the US political process, damage Clinton’s campaign and ultimately help Republican Donald Trump win the White House.
In April, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Mike Pompeo said Assange was the leader of a hostile force that threatens the US.
“It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is—a non-state hostile intelligence service" often aided by nations such as Russia, Pompeo said on 13 April in his first public speech after becoming head of the agency. “WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service."
The group has encouraged followers to pursue jobs at the CIA in order to pilfer intelligence, Pompeo has said. He denounced Assange, who calls himself a champion of transparency in government, as a “narcissist" and a “fraud—a coward hiding behind a screen."
Russia’s role remains the subject of multiple investigations by congressional intelligence committees and the FBI, which has said it’s looking into whether any associates of Trump had contact or colluded with Russian government operatives.
Assange has denied that he was given the leaked documents by Russia, although he has refused to say where he got them. Bloomberg