When WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange was arrested in London last week so he could face charges in the US, it raised deep concerns around media freedom. Amid these concerns, however, let’s remember that Assange is also accused of rape.
Assange fled to London’s Ecuador embassy seven years ago to escape pending extradition proceedings that would have seen him returned to Sweden to face charges of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation, and rape, based on allegations by two women. He stayed in the embassy since then, he says, because Sweden would not guarantee against his onward extradition to the US, should the US wish to prosecute him for leaking diplomatic cables.
As Assange sheltered in the embassy, beyond the reach of law enforcement, the statute of limitations expired on the charges of unlawful coercion and sexual molestation, meaning that they can no longer be prosecuted because so much time has passed.
The rape charge was shelved, but can be restored until its statute of limitations expires in August 2020.
It is the Swedish prosecutor’s job to determine whether to seek Assange's extradition to Sweden under a European Arrest Warrant (EAW).
Assange will have the opportunity to challenge the arrest warrant in a UK court – as, indeed, he did unsuccessfully before he fled to the Ecuador embassy. But the UK should also cooperate fully with Swedish authorities as they work to determine next steps – if any – in the charges against Assange. This includes giving Swedish authorities whatever time they need to make this decision. Given that Sweden's initial request for Assange was made seven years ago, it seems only fair that the UK pause and see if Sweden wants to revive that request before acting on the US request made last week.
If Sweden requests Assange’s extradition, it likely won’t heighten the already serious human rights concerns created by the US indictment, provided Sweden refuses to send him anywhere he would face cruel and inhuman treatment. In Sweden, as in the UK, Assange would have the opportunity to argue that extradition to the US could violate his human rights.
Time already ran out for one of Assange’s alleged victims who sought justice. The UK should provide the Swedish prosecutor with every opportunity to determine whether the remaining accuser should have her day in court.