Swedish Case May Keep Assange Out of U.S. for Five More Years

(Bloomberg) -- Julian Assange spent years avoiding being sent to Sweden. Now, he may spend years there, delaying American charges that he helped hack into military computers.

Swedish prosecutors will next week say whether or not they’re re-opening a probe into rape allegations against the WikiLeaks founder. If they do pursue the case, it may slow down a bid by American authorities to extradite him to the U.S. to face charges related to the disclosure of secret government documents.

“Given the seriousness of the allegations,” Swedish authorities “probably will have to issue another request” for Assange’s extradition, said Anthony Hanratty, an extradition lawyer at BDB Pitmans in London who’s not involved in the case. If they do -- and if he’s charged and potentially sentenced in Sweden -- “it could be five years plus before the U.S. get their hands on him.”

British police arrested 47-year-old Assange in April, ending his seven-year stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He was this month sentenced to 50 weeks in prison in the U.K. for skipping bail. His attorney, Jen Robinson, declined to comment ahead of Swedish prosecutors’ decision. Assange denies the Swedish allegations.

“My client and I are very much looking forward to finally being notified of the prosecutor’s decision,” Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for the woman who made the allegations, said in an email. “We are of course hopeful that the preliminary investigation will be reopened so that Assange will finally face justice in Sweden.”

He’d previously fought going to Sweden, where police issued a warrant for him after he was first questioned in 2010, fearing proceedings there would lead to a U.S. extradition request. But since the Americans have made a request in the U.K., he may no longer have a motivation to stay away from Sweden.

Because of that, “he may surprise us all and say, I consent to go to Sweden,” said Nick Vamos, a partner at law firm Peters & Peters who was previously head of extradition at the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service. That may help his reputation because he wouldn’t look like he was “fleeing justice” over the rape allegations, he said.

Once in Sweden, the native Australian would have multiple legal avenues to challenge his extradition to the U.S., all of which would take time. In order for Sweden to extradite Assange to the U.S., the country would need consent from the U.K. Assange could fight both Sweden’s attempt to extradite him, as well as the U.K.’s consent, doubling his chances of dragging things out, Vamos said.

Swedish prosecutors are due to announce their decision May 13. If they seek his extradition, U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid would choose which request -- theirs, or America’s, to address first. Last month, more than 70 U.K. lawmakers, mostly from the opposition Labour party, signed a letter urging Javid to prioritize any Swedish request over the U.S.

Either way, Assange’s options aren’t looking good.

“If he’s sent to Sweden instead, the U.S. will simply get him from Sweden,” Hanratty said. “I don’t think there’s an easy way out for him.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.