Stockholm/ London, May 19 (Reuters): Swedish prosecutors dropped an investigation on Friday of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over a rape allegation, but British police said he would still be arrested if he left the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he has been holed up for nearly five years.
Assange, 45, took refuge in the embassy in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over the rape allegation, which he denies.
He feared Sweden would hand him over to the United States to face prosecution over WikiLeaks' publication of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents in one of the largest information leaks in US history.
Swedish Chief Prosecutor Marianne Ny said the investigation had not been able to proceed because of legal obstacles.
âWe are not making a statement about his guilt,â Ny said, adding that the investigation could be reopened if Assange came to Sweden before the statute of limitations deadline for the rape allegation in 2020.
British police said separately that it was still under obligation to arrest Assange were he to leave the embassy.
âWestminster Magistrates' Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Julian Assange following him failing to surrender to the court on the 29 June 2012,â British police said.
âThe Metropolitan Police Service is obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the Embassy.â
A British government source would not confirm or deny if the United States had made a request to extradite Assange until an arrest had been made.
Assange is a cyber hero to some for exposing government abuses of power and championing free speech, but to others is a criminal who has undermined the security of the West.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo last month called WikiLeaks a âhostile intelligence serviceâ, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, responding to a question about Assange, said the administration was stepping up its efforts against all leaks of sensitive information.
âWhenever a case can be made, we will seek to put some people in jail,â Sessions said.
During the most recent US presidential election campaign, WikiLeaks published emails from Hilary Clinton's staff and the Democratic National Committee which some believe helped to lose her the election.
The mails were allegedly stolen by Russian hackers.
While Assange may still not be able to leave Ecuador's embassy in the swanky Knightsbridge area of London, the prosecutor's decision to stop the investigation into allegations of rape brings to an end a seven-year stand-off with Sweden.
In a court document seen by Reuters, Ny said there were no further avenues to pursue to take the investigation forward.
âThis is a total victory for us,â Assange's lawyer Per Samuelson said.
âThat's because we finally were able to get the interview done and he could describe what really happened and also because we could show that the United States is hunting him, which we could not do before.â
The case has raised questions about the Swedish justice system with a United Nations panel saying Assange had been subject to 'arbitrary detention'.
Prosecutors have been accused of vacillating, first dropping the preliminary investigation and then re-opening it and of dragging their heels over questioning Assange.
Prosecutors first interviewed Assange in November last year in the Ecuadorian embassy. They were not allowed to question him directly.