It was confirmed this week that the Swedish authorities have reopened the criminal investigation into Julian Assange over allegations of rape in 2010. The decision comes as Assange is serving a prison sentence in the UK for breaching bail in the original extradition proceedings. Assange is also facing extradition to the USA in connection with hacking allegations. After years of deadlock with Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy there is finally significant movement and many people are asking what will happen next.
Assange is currently serving a sentence for breaching the conditions of his bail by failing to surrender to the relevant authorities after losing in his bid to defeat an earlier European Arrest Warrant from Sweden. The Swedish authorities subsequently withdrew that warrant. HHJ Taylor imposed a 50-week custodial sentence on Assange, remarking at the time that it was difficult to imagine a more serious breach of bail than this. In normal circumstances Assange would be released from that sentence at the halfway point – i.e. after 25 weeks. However, these are not ordinary circumstances.
He is also subject to extradition proceedings in relation to US allegations of hacking. The US authorities accuse Assange of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to break a password for a classified government computer. The US have been given until 12 June 2019 to serve their full extradition request. Assuming this is done a hearing will be set down – likely at the end of 2019 or in the early part of 2020.
Assange will therefore remain in custody after the half-way point of his sentence for breaching bail unless he is again granted bail by the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in the US extradition proceedings. Given his history of breaching bail this prospect is remote if not impossible.
The impact of the Swedish case is yet to be seen. If the Swedish authorities wish to issue a European Arrest Warrant then they must first complete their investigation into Assange as a result of provisions inserted into the Extradition Act after his original case. This will require them to interview Assange. Assuming this stage is reached and a European Arrest Warrant is issued then the UK authorities will then face two competing requests for his extradition.
In these circumstances the Home Secretary will have to take a decision as to which request takes priority. The Secretary of State must take into consideration several factors in reaching this decision including the relative seriousness of the allegations and the timing of the requests. Over 70 MPs have already written to the Secretary of State urging him to favour a Swedish request if it were received. Given the serious nature of the allegations in Sweden, the history of the case to date and the impending limitation period for prosecuting Assange in Sweden one would expect priority to be given to the Swedish request.
The upshot of this for the US authorities is likely to be significant delay in the processing of their request for his extradition. Should he be extradited to Sweden it could be many years before he might be able to be extradited to the US.
Assange remains a polarising character and there remains a good deal of uncertainty as to what will happen in his cases. One thing is for sure though – he will remain in custody in the UK for the foreseeable future and the media circus around him and his case is likely to continue for many months to come.
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