Could WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange finally be leaving Ecuador’s cramped embassy in London where he’s been holed up for more than five years?
That’s certainly what authorities in Quito are hoping after Sweden dropped a sexual assault investigation into the controversial Australian. Soon after the news broke, Ecuador Foreign Minister Guillaume Long said the United Kingdom should give Assange “safe passage” to travel to the South American nation where he has asylum.
Assange took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden amid sexual assault allegations from two women. Assange has always maintained his innocence and said he feared the charges were part of a ploy to have him sent to the United States on a secret indictment for his role in publishing classified U.S. documents.
Last November, after years of negotiations, prosecutors finally interviewed him at the embassy. And on Friday, Sweden’s top prosecutor, Marianne Ny, said her office was dropping the case because there was no possibility of arresting Assange “in the foreseeable future,” The Associated Press reported.
“Ecuador regrets that it took Swedish Prosecutor more than four years to carry out this interview. This was a wholly unnecessary delay,” Long wrote in a series of tweets. “The European arrest warrant no longer holds. The UK must now grant safe passage to Mr. Julian Assange.”
But this isn’t the end of Assange’s troubles. The British police said he’s still facing arrest for skipping bail. And Assange is unlikely to leave the diplomatic compound if he suspects that he might be spirited away to the United States.
Shortly after the news broke, Assange, 45, acknowledged his legal troubles weren’t over, saying “proper war is just commencing.”
On Twitter he said he had been unjustly sequestered “while my children grew up and my name was slandered.”
“I do not forgive or forget,” he added.
The Assange-Ecuador connection goes back to 2010, when WikiLeaks published confidential U.S. Department of State cables. In one of them, Heather Hodges, the U.S. ambassador to Ecuador at the time, talked about alleged corruption in the Ecuadorean police force.
As a result, President Rafael Correa declared Hodges “persona non grata” and revoked her credentials. He initially offered Assange a job and residency in the small Andean nation, but it never materialized.
In 2012, however, as Assange was being hounded by Swedish authorities, he turned up at Ecuador’s embassy in Knightsbridge and was granted asylum. But the embassy has turned into something of a prison, as Assange hasn’t been able to leave the cramped building where he’s been living with his tweeting cat and occasionally getting visits from “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson.
Assange’s fate seemed to hang in the balance earlier this year when he became a campaign issue in Ecuador’s heated presidential election.
Opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso, who lost in a contentious runoff, had said he would evict Assange from the embassy. Ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno, however, has said he will continue Correa’s policy of giving Assange safe haven.
Moreno, who will be sworn in as president on Wednesday, hasn’t commented on the latest twist in the case.
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter: @jimwyss