|Supporters of Julian Assange hope development could be significant following the election of Donald Trump in the US. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA|
Julian Assange will face an interview with Swedish prosecutors in Ecuador’s London embassy on Monday, more than six years after he was accused of rape in Sweden.
The long-delayed interview marks a milestone in a case that has been locked in stalemate since the WikiLeaks founder sought asylum in the embassy in 2012 to avoid being extradited to Sweden over the allegation, which he denies. Sweden is likely to come under renewed pressure to issue formal rape charges or to drop the case altogether after he has been interviewed. Why can't Assange leave Ecuadorian embassy?
Some Assange supporters hope it could be a significant moment for the Australian, following the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
Assange’s position is that he has resisted extradition to Sweden because leaving the embassy would make him vulnerable to onward extradition to the US for potential prosecution over WikiLeaks’ releases of classified US embassy cables.
During his campaign, Trump declared “I love WikiLeaks!”, thanks to its repeated publication of Democratic party emails that proved highly damaging to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Many supporters of Assange and Trump have called on the president-elect to “pardon” him when he assumes office.
But the WikiLeaks founder has faced heated criticism since the election from other supporters who dispute the site’s assertions that its releases during the campaign were non-partisan. The site’s damaging leaks related only to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in releases apparently timed to cause her maximum damage.
Ecuador severed Assange’s internet connection at the embassy during the campaign over fears he was using it to influence the election.
His US attorney, Barry Pollack, told the Guardian that some of Trump’s comments about WikiLeaks were encouraging. “I think they indicate that Mr Trump understands that [the site] is like any other journalist making information public because it views it as in the public interest.”
Trump could pardon Assange even though he has not been convicted in the US, Pollack said, citing the precedent of Gerald Ford’s pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixon. “So, absolutely President Trump could pardon Mr Assange and obviously we would welcome that.”
However, Pollack said: “There is still a giant chasm between recognising WikiLeaks’s value with respect to certain stories and closing any investigation for past publications ... We have no idea what stance, ultimately, they are going to take with respect to Mr Assange.”
Monday’s interview in the embassy follows a tortuous legal and diplomatic wrangle between Ecuador and Sweden before prosecutors consented to interview the Australian in London, and then until the two sides agreed arrangements.
According to the agreement finally hammered out by the two countries, the questioning will be attended by Sweden’s deputy chief prosecutor Ingred Isgren and police inspector Cecilia Redell but will be conducted by an Ecuadorean prosecutor putting forward questions they have already submitted. The Swedes will be allowed to ask for clarification of Assange’s responses, but not put any fresh questions. His answers will be transcribed and sent to the Swedish authorities.
Per E Samuelson, Assange’s Swedish lawyer who will be present at the interview, told the Guardian the Australian’s team had been calling for the interview to happen in the UK since 2010. “The responsibility for this [delay] lies only [with] the prosecutor.”
A spokeswoman for the chief prosecutor, Marianne Ny, said questioning through a foreign prosecutor was common practice in matters of international legal assistance, but that this protocol had been one of the reasons for Ny’s prolonged insistence that Assange should come to Sweden for questioning, since “[she] was of the opinion it would affect the quality of the interview”.
In November 2014, Sweden’s appeal court rejected Assange’s appeal against the warrant, but criticised Ny stating that her “failure” to examine alternative avenues of investigation “is not in line with [her] obligation – in the interests of everyone concerned – to move the matter forward”.
Last year, the deadline passed for Ny to charge Assange over allegations of sexual assault by a second woman, forcing prosecutors to drop that part of their investigation. What will be the first actions Trump takes as president?
Sources close to the Swedish investigation told the Guardian that a further reason for Ny’s insistence on interviewing Assange in Sweden was she was confident that she could secure an indictment and would therefore be able to arrest and charge Assange immediately.
However, Pål Wrange, professor of international law at Stockholm university, said, “The value of a person’s memory decreases over time,” and the delay would inevitably affect the chances of security a conviction.
Samuelson said he had concerns over the use of translation during the questioning, which increased the risk of misunderstandings, but “in spite of all this Julian Assange has decided to give his statement on Monday. This seems to be the only way to bring the case forward and we demand that the pre-investigation is dropped immediately thereafter.”
Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs Guillaume Long said the country had been urging Sweden to interview Assange in the embassy “since the very first moment that we granted asylum to Mr Assange. So we are pleased that the interview will finally take place, though we wish that it would have occurred much earlier.”