Huh. Sweden dropping rape charges against Assange

This situation has largely gone dormant in the news for several months now, but events may be about to kick back into gear. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been cooling his heels in a London jail since the summer when he was convicted of skipping bail and some minor obstruction charges in Great Britain. The United States has filed a request for extradition on charges of computer hacking and possible espionage. But Sweden appeared to have first dibs on him for rape charges dating back a decade.

Well, America may have just moved up in the queue to get their hands on him. Sweden announced today that they’ve dropped the charges… again. (NBC News)

Sweden on Tuesday announced it was dropping a rape investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

“Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson has today decided to discontinue the investigation,” Swedish prosecutors said. “The reason for this decision is that the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question.”

Assange, who has always denied the allegations, spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London before he was dragged out in April.

This represents the second time that Sweden has dropped the rape charges. The first time they did it was based on their justice system basically giving up on the idea of ever getting him back to their country to stand trial. This time it’s also not because they’ve determined he’s not guilty, but rather because so much time has elapsed that the memories of some of the witnesses are fading over time and they’re no longer confident that they could secure a conviction.

That chapter of the story may not be over, however. The prosecutor noted that the decision was subject to appeal, so they may yet decide to have another go at him. But if not, he’s up for grabs early next year.

So does this mean that we get the next crack at him? There’s a hearing scheduled for February of next year in Great Britain where it will be decided whether or not he can be turned over to the United States Justice Department. The results are not a foregone conclusion, however.

Under the U.S.-UK extradition treaty, either country can request extradition of criminal suspects regardless of the accused’s nationality, provided they are physically in either of the two countries. Over the course of this treaty, Great Britain has requested extradition for 58 people. None of these requests have ever been refused.

But it’s not quite as easy in the other direction. The United States has made 130 extradition requests during the same period, and while most have been granted, ten were refused. The refusal can be based on any of several reasons, but one would be if their courts feel that the person would not receive fair treatment in America. But one of the complicating factors may soon go away. Some cases of extradition request refusal apparently stemmed from European Union requirements that bogged down the case for extended periods of time. Barring some huge surprise in next month’s elections, the UK may be out of the EU by the time Assange’s hearing rolls around.

If we manage to bring him back here to stand trial and he’s convicted, the most serious charges against him could send him to prison for decades. Assange has already effectively spent the last eight years locked up, first by his own choice in the Ecuadorian embassy and now in jail. That may start looking like small potatoes if he goes down on espionage charges. But we’re left to wonder if perhaps the prosecutors will offer him a deal, assuming he’s willing to give up some of his former buddies. Perhaps someone like… Chelsea Manning?