Some charges dropped, but Julian Assange's legal troubles far from over

Story highlights

  • UK calls for Ecuador to allow the extradition of Julian Assange to Sweden in line with legal obligations
  • Statute of limitations on some charges running out, but allegation of suspicion of rape stands
  • Assange fears that if extradited to Sweden, he could land in the United States

(CNN)Swedish prosecutors have been caught in a long game of cat and mouse with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over allegations of sexual assault. It has kept Assange locked down at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for three years.

On Thursday, prosecutors announced they are dropping allegations involving sexual molestation and coercion as statutes of limitations in the investigation run out this month.
Their disappearance may not change Assange's predicament. The allegation of suspicion of rape still stands and he may be investigated on it until 2020, Swedish prosecutors have said.

    Fear of the U.S.

    Assange appears still to be stuck at the embassy, where British police stand guard to see to it he can be extradited to Sweden should he set foot outside the door.
    The Australian has never been charged and denies the allegations against him in Sweden.
    On Thursday, Assange reacted to the news by lashing out at Swedish prosecutors over his legal troubles. "I am extremely disappointed," he said in a statement. "There was no need for any of this. I am an innocent man. I haven't even been charged."
    A bigger fear may be nagging at Assange. If apprehended by the Swedes, he has said he could eventually end up in the United States, where he could be charged and tried over the leak of confidential U.S. documents to the public via the website WikiLeaks.
    If the case of Chelsea Manning, formerly Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, is any indication, Assange could face a heavy penalty in the U.S. justice system. Manning was sentenced to 35 years behind bars for stealing 750,000 pages of classified documents and slipping them to WikiLeaks.

    How we got here

    Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006, and in December 2007, it posted a U.S. Army manual for soldiers dealing with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It drew outrage from critics of the U.S. handling of inmates and from the U.S. government, which condemned the leak as illegal.
    In the coming years, WikiLeaks exposed documents from the Church of Scientology, Sarah Palin, a far-right British party and New Yorkers terrified by the September 11, 2001, attacks.
    Then in 2010, the site posted a classified U.S. military video of an Apache helicopter mistakenly gunning down two journalists and Iraqi civilians. It was handed to WikiLeaks by Manning along with the classified documents.
    The U.S. military detained Manning, and WikiLeaks little by little pushed out documents on the Afghanistan War, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Iraq War. It followed with the publication of U.S. State Department cables dating back to 1966.
    The leaks kept coming, and the consequences against leakers intensified.

    Consequences

    Police stand guard outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
    Credit card companies and money transfer services cut WikiLeaks off, and the U.S. justice system started the process of putting Manning away.
    While Assange visited Sweden, women made allegations of sexual assault against the WikiLeaks founder. British authorities arrested him on Sweden's behalf, but he later went free on bail.
    Fearing a series of extraditions could land him in the United States to face a similar fate to Manning's, Assange sought and was granted asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy on July 19, 2012.
    British police took up position outside the embassy, and the stalemate between Assange, Sweden, Britain and the United States began. Neither Sweden nor Britain have ruled out extraditing Assange to the United States.
    The UK Foreign Office reiterated this week that a European arrest warrant remains in place for Assange -- and called for Ecuador to end its "abuse of diplomatic relations" and allow Britain to extradite him to Sweden.
    "Ecuador must recognize that its decision to harbor Mr. Assange more than three years ago has prevented the proper course of justice," Minister of State Hugo Swire said Thursday.
    In an email to CNN, the Metropolitan Police said that the estimated cost of policing the Ecuadorian Embassy between June 2012 and the end of June 2015 had run to £11.9 million -- or about $18.5 million.

    Diplomatic tug of war

    Assange has tried to get Sweden to drop the allegations against him to no avail.
    Swedish investigators initially refused to interview Assange in Britain on the allegations but reversed that stance in the spring as the statute of limitations on part of the investigation loomed.
    But they could not come to an agreement with Ecuadorian authorities on the terms of that interrogation.
    A member of Assange's legal team, human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, said she was unsurprised three of the allegations against him had now been dropped.
    "The evidence would never have stood in in any court of law worthy of the name," she said. "Why in all those five years did the Swedish Prosecution authorities fail to come to London to question Assange as was repeatedly offered?"
    Assange recently sought diplomatic protection from France after WikiLeaks alleged the U.S. National Security Agency spied on French presidents, but Paris ultimately declined.
    Assange remains holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy.