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Authorities: Swedish prosecutor believed Assange could leave country

From Per Nyberg, CNN
"It is clearly a smear campaign," WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange said of the charges.
"It is clearly a smear campaign," WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange said of the charges.
  • The prosecutor who issued the warrant has been reported to an ombudsman
  • The chief prosecutor is still reviewing the case
  • Assange denies the allegations
  • WikiLeaks founder says he was warned about "sex traps"

Stockholm, Sweden (CNN) -- A Swedish prosecutor who issued a later-revoked arrest warrant against WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange believed Assange was about to leave the country, according to a statement posted on the Sweden Prosecution Authority's website.

The warrant, issued on charges of rape and molestation, was revoked by Chief Prosecutor Eva Finne less than a day later. Assange, in remarks to Al-Jazeera on Sunday, said that authorities had reached "the height of irresponsibility" and that he believed he was the target of a smear campaign.

The warrant was issued Friday by an on-call prosecutor in Stockholm, according to a chronology posted Monday on the prosecution authority's website. The prosecutor "decided that Julian Assange was to be arrested," based on the allegations. The prosecutor based the decision on information police gave her over the phone -- a typical procedure, authorities said.

"The prosecutor was also made aware that the individual concerned was a foreign national and that he was about to leave the country," the chronology said. One reason for issuing the warrant was "that there was a risk that he would have time to leave the country before authorities had time to interrogate him. There was also a risk that he could have interfered with the investigation."

Meanwhile, a group that claims to work to protect individuals' legal rights in the Swedish justice system said Monday it has reported the on-call prosecutor to the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman of Justice. It was unclear what action, if any, the ombudsman could take against the prosecutor.

"We can see that, time after time, prosecutors don't follow the Swedish objectivity laws," Johann Binninge, founder of the Organisation for Safe Legal Proceedings, told CNN.

"When accusations come in, prosecutors don't even check facts before they take coercive measures, and this is contrary to Swedish laws. In this case, the prosecutor only listened to one individual's story but didn't bother checking the other side of the story before accusing Mr. Assange of a very serious crime. This is why we have reported her."

News of the warrant reached a Swedish media outlet, the prosecution authority said, but "the authority does not know how this happened, and the authority is not allowed to investigate this." Under Swedish law, news outlets are protected from police investigations into their sources.

The news organization contacted the on-call prosecutor Friday night, the authority said. "Once the on-call prosecutor was made aware that the news organization already knew all the details in the case, she confirmed that there was such a case ongoing and that it involved Julian Assange."

However, she provided no details to the media, the authority said. "This is very important, especially in cases involving sex crimes, since information about the individuals involved must be protected. This is governed by Swedish privacy laws."

After the news broke in the media Saturday, the on-call prosecutor "came under intense pressure," and it became clear the case needed to be transferred to someone else so that she could continue her usual duties, the prosecution authority said.

Finne was appointed lead investigator and immediately began looking into the case, the authority said. On Saturday, she revoked the warrant "because she did not consider it possible to suspect him of rape," the statement said. "The amount of information available to her was more extensive than what the on-call prosecutor had on Friday evening. Exactly what that information was cannot be disclosed at this point, since the investigation is ongoing."

"It is clearly a smear campaign," Assange told Al-Jazeera on Sunday. "... The only question is, who was involved?"

He told the Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet in a story Sunday that he doesn't know who was behind it, "but we have been warned that, for example, the Pentagon is planning on using dirty tricks to destroy our work." He said he was also warned about so-called "sex traps." Asked by the paper if he has fallen for one of those traps, he said, "Maybe. Maybe not."

Assange said the on-call prosecutor should be criticized, as well as the media "who so blindly reported these accusations."

"I have never, either in Sweden nor in any other country, had sex with anyone in a way that was not based on both sides being completely voluntary," he told the newspaper.

Finne, however, said in a statement Monday, "My decision that Mr. Assange should no longer be arrested in his absence because he could not be suspected of rape is by no means criticism of the decision of the duty prosecutor. I had access to more information on Saturday than the duty prosecutor had on Friday."

Assange told Aftonbladet he was at a friend's cottage in northern Sweden, and had initially planned to stay until Wednesday but was delaying his departure for reasons unrelated to the investigation.

WikiLeaks has triggered controversy by recently posting about 76,000 U.S. documents related to the war in Afghanistan, a move that has drawn criticism from both nations. Another 15,000 documents are to be released soon, Assange has said.

Swedish media, citing unnamed sources, reported that two women, ages 20 and 30, reported the allegations to police, which led to the warrant. Aftonbladet said the 30-year-old told the newspaper that the younger woman had approached her with a story similar to hers -- that she had consensual sex with Assange but that the situation had turned abusive. Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the prosecution authority, would not confirm those reports.

Finne has "still not decided what other potential offenses [Assange] may be suspected of in the incident previously labeled rape," the prosecution authority's statement said. "She also has not yet decided on the suspected molestation. The investigation is still ongoing and the suspicions against Assange are still there."

Rosander said Monday that if Assange is convicted of molestation, he could face a sentence of up to a year in jail. Prosecutors may also request in court that he be held in jail while awaiting trial, she said. Rosander earlier had said he would not face jail time if convicted of molestation, but corrected that Monday.

Finne said in a statement Monday that she would "analyze this matter thoroughly and make all necessary legal judgments, to be able to decide on the progress of the investigation." She estimated she would be able to provide information Tuesday. "Concerning the suspicion of molestation, I have not yet been able to make any decisions," she said.

Finne said she has not been in contact with Assange and did not know whether he had retained a Swedish attorney.

The allegations involve two separate incidents, Rosander told the Swedish news wire TT, but she did not know whether the two alleged victims were Swedes.