Ecuador’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it would soon set a date for Swedish prosecutors to question Julian Assange at its embassy in London, which the WikiLeaks founder has made his de facto residence for the last four years.
“It means that a questioning can make the case go forward,” Swedish Prosecution Authority spokeswoman Karin Rosander told the Associated Press. “This is decisive to be able to take a decision whether to formally charge him or not.”
Mr. Assange first took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in June 2012 after being accused by two women of involvement in a rape case in Sweden, and was granted a form of asylum by Ecuador two months later. Three of the four sex-crime allegations against him have expired, NPR noted in February. The fourth and last allegation, of rape, carries a ten-year statute of limitations that will not expire until 2020, according to Australia’s ABC.
In March 2015, Sweden reversed its longstanding refusal to interrogate Assange at the embassy in London, as Ecuador had offered. Prosecutors attributed the reversal to the statute of limitations.
"My view has always been that to perform an interview with him at the Ecuadorean embassy in London would lower the quality of the interview," said lead prosecutor Marianne Ny then, according to the BBC.
"Now that time is of the essence, I have viewed it therefore necessary to accept such deficiencies in the investigation and likewise take the risk that the interview does not move the case forward."
Assange maintains that the claims are “without basis,” insisting that his encounters with the women were consensual. He says he fears that Swedish authorities could extradite him to the United States for prosecution over the publishing of leaked documents by WikiLeaks – a fear that Ecuador’s government deemed credible in awarding him asylum.
In its announcement on Thursday, Ecuador reaffirmed the validity of Assange’s asylum, saying it would “last as long as the circumstances that motivated the concession of said asylum, in particular the fear of suffering political persecution.”
In 2013, US officials told The Washington Post that the Justice Department would probably not bring charges against Assange, because there would be no way to do so without also prosecuting a host of other journalists who published classified material. Assange’s defense team remains skeptical given that the Justice Department has not closed its investigation or made an official announcement that they would not pursue charges against him.
Assange has reemerged as a wildcard on the US political scene after WikiLeaks published emails from the Democratic National Committee, ahead of the July convention, revealing that DNC operatives had favored Hillary Clinton over the insurgent Bernie Sanders, against party neutrality rules. He has also emerged as a chief foe of Hillary Clinton, whom he believes to have pushed to indict him over the publication of diplomatic cables, noted The New York Times in July.
This week, Assange sought to dispel claims of Russian responsibility for the DNC leaks, and seemed to suggest on Dutch TV that the July shooting death of DNC employee Seth Rich could have been in retribution for suspected collaboration with WikiLeaks.
“Our sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that,” said Assange.
“We have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States and that our sources face serious risks. That’s why they come to us, so we can protect their anonymity."
WikiLeaks has offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of Mr. Rich’s murderer, reported the Telegraph on Tuesday. But Joel Rich, the father of the victim, accused WikiLeaks of "playing a game" with his son’s death, calling the idea that it could have been linked to political retribution “bizarre.”