LONDON – Swedish officials ratcheted up the pressure on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Wednesday, asking European police to arrest him on rape allegations as his organization continued to embarrass the Obama administration with a stream of leaked diplomatic cables.
The 39-year-old Australian computer hacker disappeared from public view after a Nov. 5 press conference in Geneva. He has spoken publicly only through online interviews, while a statement from his lawyer said the Australian was being persecuted by Swedish officials who are seeking his arrest on allegations of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion.
Sweden's Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny said that a European arrest warrant had been issued for Assange in connection with the allegations. London-based lawyer Mark Stephens complained that Assange had yet to receive formal notice of the allegations he faces — something he described as a legal requirement under European law — and said that Assange had repeatedly offered to answer questions about the investigation, to no avail.
Stephens was scathing in his condemnation of Ny, saying he'd never come across a prosecutor who has "such casual disregard" for her obligations
"Given that Sweden is a civilized country, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that this is a persecution and not a prosecution," Stephens wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Ny declined specific comment on Stephens' criticism, saying that her decision to seek Assange's arrest had been tested in the Swedish courts.
"I see nothing unusual, or anything that breaches the rules in the processing of this case," Ny told AP. She added that there was nothing unusual about issuing an international arrest warrant for someone who has left the country and is accused of a crime as serious as rape.
Assange's whereabouts aren't known, but a European arrest warrant applies to countries across the continent. In England and Wales, such warrants are vetted by the Serious and Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) before being passed on to the relevant local police forces. SOCA declined comment Wednesday, as did London's Scotland Yard. But a German security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a warrant for Assange has been issued in Germany.
The exact nature of the allegations facing Assange aren't completely clear, although Stephens has in the past described them as a part of "a post-facto dispute over consensual, but unprotected sex" and Swedish prosecutors have disagreed about whether to label the most serious charge as rape.
Formal charges have not been filed, but a detention order issued at Ny's request on Nov. 18 remains in force pending an appeal by Assange. The case is now before Sweden's Supreme Court, which will make a decision Wednesday or Thursday.
Meanwhile, Assange's secret-spilling group is still in the process of disclosing hundreds of classified State Department cables which have revealed requests for U.S. diplomats to gather personal information on their foreign counterparts, highlighted Western concerns that Islamist militants might get access to Pakistan's nuclear material and American skepticism that Islamabad will sever ties to Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.
The revelations have angered U.S. officials and prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to promise "aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information."
Assange's lawyer, Stephens, noted that Sweden's moves to have Assange arrested closely followed the leak of the diplomatic cables, and said his law firm was investigating whether the Swedish case was linked to Clinton's threat.
Clinton said she discussed the leak with her colleagues at a security summit Wednesday in Kazakhstan and said the revelations will not hurt American diplomacy — despite unflattering descriptions of some foreign leaders contained in some of the cables.
Assange, for his part, told Time magazine that Clinton should resign "if it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations" in violation of international agreements.
The White House said his statements "are both ridiculous and absurd" and U.S. diplomats do not engage in spying.
In addition to Assange's legal troubles, his website has also come under pressure, with both Wikileaks and a subsite devoted to the diplomatic documents blocked and unavailable from the U.S. and Europe.
WikiLeaks had earlier complained of suffering a denial-of-service attack, in which remote computers commandeered by rogue programs bombard a website with so many data packets that it becomes overwhelmed and unavailable to visitors.
The precise cause of the latest outage was not immediately clear.
Rising reported from Stockholm. Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.