Swedish prosecutors drop Assange sexual assault probe

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a August 2014 file photo.
PHOTO: Reuters

STOCKHOLM - Swedish prosecutors dropped a sexual assault probe against Julian Assange on Thursday, but the move failed to placate the Wikileaks founder who still faces a rape claim.

Two of the four allegations against the Australian - who has been holed up at Ecuador's London embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition - have reached their statute of limitations after five years.

"Now that the statute of limitations has expired on certain offences, I am obliged to drop part of the investigation," prosecutor Marianne Ny said.

But she said she still wanted to question the 44-year-old over the more serious claim of rape.

The accusations dropped involve one count of sexual assault and another of unlawful coercion. A separate allegation of sexual molestation will run out on August 18.

The Australian can still however be prosecuted for rape, which carries a 10-year statute of limitations that expires in 2020.

Assange has always denied the allegations brought by two Swedish women, and insists the sexual encounters were consensual.

"I am extremely disappointed. There was no need for any of this. I am an innocent man," Assange said in a statement after the prosecutor's decision.

He accused her of being "beyond incompetence" for failing to going to the Ecuador embassy to take his statement or to pledge he would not be sent to the United States.

Unable to access embassy

A member of his legal team, Baroness Helena Kennedy of Britain, also took aim at the Swedish prosecution.

"The evidence would never have stood in any court of law worthy of its name," she said in a statment, adding: "The remaining allegation is just as unlikely to lead to conviction."

Under Swedish law, if a suspect is not questioned before the deadline on the case expires, they can no longer be tried for the alleged crimes.

Despite repeated attempts, prosecutors say they have been unable to gain access to Ecuador's embassy.

They initially insisted Assange return to Sweden for interrogation - a condition he rejected for fear Stockholm could deliver him to US authorities, who may try him for leaking nearly 750,000 classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

In a U-turn in March, prosecutors agreed to Assange's compromise offer to question him inside the London mission but say they have yet to see their request approved by Ecuador because of procedural issues - leading critics to suspect Quito of playing the clock.

Attorneys for Assange however say suspicions Ecuador is using delaying tactics are unfounded.

"The (Swedish) request came in late and is being processed by Ecuador, which will certainly approve it after following its own procedures," Assange's Swedish lawyer Per Samuelsson told AFP earlier this month.

'Weight lifted'

Claes Borgstrom, a lawyer for one of the two women accusing Assange of assault in 2010, said his client was trying to come to terms with the likelihood that the case will never be tried.

"She has always been ready to stand by her accusations and wanted to bring the case to court. But at the same time a weight has been lifted. This has been dragging on for five years and she wants to go back to her normal life," he told the daily Dagens Nyheter earlier this week.

Assange has compared living inside the embassy - which has no garden but is in the plush Knightsbridge district, near Harrods department store - to life on a space station.

His room, which measures 4.5m by 4m, is divided into an office and a living area. He has a treadmill, a shower, a microwave and a sun lamp and spends most of his day at his computer.

Assange is subject to a European arrest warrant. Britain has vowed to detain him if he sets foot outside the embassy, which is under constant police surveillance.