LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers are heaping pressure on the government to make sure that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces Swedish justice if prosecutors there reopen a rape investigation against him.
There is mounting concern that Assange should not be allowed to sidestep the Swedish investigation stemming from his 2010 visit to Sweden. The complaints from two women eventually led him to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London rather than return to Sweden for questioning.
Some are calling for the British government to extradite Assange to Sweden, if it makes an official request, rather than to the U.S., which seeks him on conspiracy charges.
More than 70 British lawmakers signed a letter late Friday urging Home Secretary Sajid Javid to “do everything you can to champion action that will ensure Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden in the event Sweden makes an extradition request.”
Prominent Conservative Party lawmaker Alistair Burt, a former Foreign Office minister, said Saturday that it’s “quite disturbing” to see the sexual allegations minimized.
He said the testimony of the two women makes it “essential” that Assange face justice, to either be cleared in a Swedish court or be convicted.
Assange, 47, has denied the sexual misconduct allegations, which he claims are politically motivated. He claims the sex was consensual.
Sweden suspended its investigation into possible sexual misconduct against Assange two years ago because he was beyond their reach while he was living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London with political asylum status. Prosecutors said the investigation could be revived if his situation changed.
Assange was arrested Thursday after Ecuador withdrew his asylum. He is now in Belmarsh Prison in southeast London, waiting to be sentenced for jumping bail in Britain and facing an extradition request from the United States on charges of conspiring to break into a Pentagon computer.
WikiLeaks says Assange will fight the U.S. extradition request and has been meeting with his legal team to plan his defense.
He has not had a chance to enter a plea in response to the U.S. charge, but he says all of his WikiLeaks actions are those of a legitimate journalist.
If Britain receives competing extradition requests, lawyers say the Home Secretary would have some leeway in deciding which takes priority. Considerations usually include which request came first and which alleged crime is more serious.
Most of the lawmakers who signed the letter are from the opposition Labour Party, whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, wants Britain to refuse to send Assange to the U.S. After Assange’s arrest, Corbyn praised him for exposing U.S. atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan when WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of confidential U.S. documents in 2010.
British politicians are free to lobby the government for a certain course of action, but it’s up to the courts to decide whether the U.S. request for Assange’s extradition — and a possible future request from Sweden — should be honored.
The Home Secretary, a senior Cabinet official, can block extradition under certain circumstances, including cases where a person might face capital punishment or torture in the country seeking their extradition.
Swedish prosecutors opened an investigation into Assange after two women accused him of sexual offenses during a 2010 visit to Sweden. Some of the sexual misconduct accusations are no longer viable because their time ran out. But Swedish prosecutors have said a rape case could be reactivated since the statute of limitations for that runs until August 2020.
After Assange’s arrest this week, Swedish prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson was tapped to look into a request from a lawyer for one of the accusers, to find out whether the case can be pursued.
Elisabeth Massi Fritz, the lawyer for the woman who reported being raped by Assange, told The Associated Press that she would “do everything” to have the Swedish case reopened so Assange can be extradited to Sweden and prosecuted.
The extradition process is not swift, and Assange could appeal several times if decisions go against him. It’s expected it would take a year or longer for him to be sent to the United States or possibly to Sweden even if he ultimately loses in court.