Swedish prosecutors on Monday issued a formal request to hold WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently imprisoned in Britain, on suspicion of rape – a first step toward seeking his extradition to Sweden.
Swedish deputy director of public prosecutions Eva-Marie Persson said in a statement she had filed a request with the Uppsala district court to have Assange detained in his absence over an alleged rape.
Detaining someone in their absence is a standard part of Swedish legal procedure if a suspect is outside the country or cannot be located.
The request follows last week's reopening of a 2010 rape investigation, and Persson added that once the court had granted the request, she would then ask British authorities to transfer Assange to Sweden.
"If the court decides to detain him, I will issue a European Arrest Warrant concerning surrender to Sweden," Persson said.
The Australian whistleblower, who holed himself up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London for seven years to avoid a British extradition order to Sweden, was arrested by British police on April 11 after Ecuador gave him up.
A London court sentenced him on May 1 to 50 weeks in jail for breaching the British order.
The Swedish investigation concerns events which took place in 2010 when a Swedish woman accused Assange of rape, after meeting him at a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm.
Assange has always denied the allegations.
Swedish authorities closed the investigation in 2017, when Sweden's then director of public prosecutions Marianne Ny argued that since Assange could not be reached, having taken up residence in Ecuador's embassy, it was not possible to proceed with the probe.
But the investigation was reopened on May 13 following Assange's arrest in London.
The prosecution authority was unable to say when the detention hearing would take place since this would be up to the court to decide, and that a European Arrest Warrant would only be issued after the court had granted the detention request.
When contacted by AFP, the Uppsala district court, where the request was filed, said the detention hearing had not yet been scheduled.
Assange's Swedish lawyer Per E Samuelson said that he didn't think the detention hearing could take place this week, since he would need to go over the matter with his client first.
"I've written the district court and said that they can't hold a detention hearing until I've met my client and received instructions. Since he is currently incarcerated in London I haven't even been able to establish contact over the phone yet," Samuelson told AFP on Monday.
Assange is already the subject of an extradition request from the United States, where he is wanted for hacking. That request was only revealed following his arrest in London.
Eva-Marie Persson said it would be up to British authorities to decide which country's request should take precedence.
"In the event of a conflict between a European Arrest Warrant and a request for extradition from the U.S., U.K. authorities will decide on the order of priority. The outcome of this process is impossible to predict," Persson said.
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks said Monday that Ecuador is expected to allow U.S. officials to enter its London embassy to take away possessions left behind by Assange.
Assange and his lawyers will not be present during the "illegal seizure" of items believed to include his manuscripts, legal papers, medical records and electronic equipment, WikiLeaks said.
"The seizure of his belongings violates laws that protect medical and legal confidentiality and press protections," it said.
Protesters rallied outside Ecuador's embassy in London on Monday to protest the seizure.
"Free speech" and "Free Assange," read some of the signs held up by a small group of campaigners outside the embassy.
"Ecuador is committing a flagrant violation of the most basic norms of the institution of asylum by handing over all the asylee's personal belongings indiscriminately to the country that he was being protected from – the United States," one of Assange's lawyers, Aitor Martinez, said in a statement Monday.
"This is completely unprecedented in the history of asylum," Martinez said. "The protecting country cannot cooperate with the agent of persecution against the person to whom it was providing protection."
Ecuador's Foreign Minister Jose Valencia earlier this month confirmed that the belongings that Assange had to leave behind would be seized and Ecuadorian prosecutors would then decide what material to hand over to U.S. investigators.
Valencia defended the handover, saying: "This is derived from a very clear order from a competent judicial authority."