LONDON — When Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, jumped bail and sought asylum in Ecuador’s embassy five years ago to avoid a Swedish rape investigation, he was considered by many a hero of transparency, Internet freedom, and resistance to the secret state.
So when Sweden’s prosecutors announced Friday that they were abandoning their attempt to extradite him, invalidating the warrant for his arrest, Assange proclaimed it a happy moment of vindication. “Today was an important victory,” he said.
But Assange, 45, who became a persistent problem for the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign over leaks of classified and embarrassing documents, still faces enormous legal problems — which he also acknowledged.
He could be arrested in London for other reasons — and may possibly risk extradition to the United States — if he left the sanctuary of Ecuador’s embassy. And his reputation is far different than when he entered it in 2012.
Assange is now seen by many, including some who once had admired him the most, as an accomplice of the Russian propagandists and Donald Trump supporters who had sought to malign Clinton.
His advocacy of disclosure has become intertwined with politically motivated leaks and stolen information technology, used by states and criminals alike.
And his assertion Friday that Sweden had cleared his name for a crime he has denied was disputed by Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Marianne Ny.
Sweden was dropping the inquiry, Ny said, because she simply saw no way forward and “we don’t make any statement of guilty or not.”
Should Assange enter Sweden before August 2020, when the statute of limitations expires for the last remaining allegation, of minor rape, she said, the investigation could be reopened.
His Swedish accuser, through her attorney, decried the decision.
“It is a scandal that a suspected rapist can escape justice and thereby avoid the courts,” the attorney, Elisabeth Fritz, said in a statement to news agencies. “My client is shocked.”
Assange appeared on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy to thank supporters, protest what he called his long “detention,” and vowed continued struggle against any charges laid against him.
“The road is far from over,” he said, raising a clenched fist. “The war, the proper war, is just commencing,” he added, referring to legal battles with Britain and potentially the United States.
Most uncertain for Assange is whether the United States has issued a secret arrest and extradition warrant in connection with his assistance to Chelsea Manning, who was released from prison this week after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence, in stealing and revealing US secrets.
Just last month, the Trump administration’s Justice Department was reported to be reconsidering whether to charge Assange.
On Friday, the British Home Office and Crown Prosecution Service said they would not comment on any possible extradition request. The Justice Department also declined to comment.
With Ecuador pressing Britain to allow Assange passage to Ecuador to receive political asylum there, according to the Ecuadorean foreign minister, Guillaume Long, British authorities may choose to be quietly rid of the troublesome Assange, who has been costly to surveil.
In a statement, Long said: “Given that the European arrest warrant no longer holds, Ecuador will now be intensifying its diplomatic efforts with the UK so that Julian Assange can gain safe passage, in order to enjoy his asylum in Ecuador.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggested last month that arresting Assange was “a priority” as part of a crackdown on leaks. The CIA director, Mike Pompeo, said WikiLeaks was operating like “a hostile intelligence service” and that Assange was “a fraud.”
Trump equivocated when asked in a recent interview with the Associated Press whether he still supported Assange. “I don’t support or unsupport. It was just information,” Trump said, referring to the hacked
Of the attorney general’s plan to have Assange arrested, the president said, “I am not involved in that decision, but if Jeff Sessions wants to do it, it’s OK with me.”