Ecuador to set date for Assange to be questioned by Sweden

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2016, file photo, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stands on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Ecuador says it’s ready to set a date for Swedish prosecutors to question Assange, who has been holed up in the South American country’s embassy in London for four years. Assange is wanted for questioning by Swedish police over rape allegations stemming from his visit to the country in 2010. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

LONDON — Ecuador said Thursday it's ready to set a date for Swedish prosecutors to question Julian Assange inside its London embassy — a potential breakthrough in the years-long international impasse over the WikiLeaks founder.

Assange is wanted for questioning by Swedish police over a rape allegation stemming from his visit to the country in 2010. He has not been charged and denies the rape claim and other allegations made against him by two women. In June 2012, he sought shelter in Ecuador's embassy in the British capital and has been holed up there ever since.

Ecuador announced last year that it had agreed to a Swedish proposal to interview Assange at the embassy, but no interview has taken place.

Ecuador's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that a date for the questioning in the embassy would be set "in the coming weeks."

Swedish Prosecution Authority spokeswoman Karin Rosander said Sweden handed over a formal request to interview Assange in January, and a reminder in June, and received Ecuador's reply on Tuesday.

"It means that a questioning can make the case go forward," Rosander told The Associated Press. "This is decisive to be able to take a decision whether to formally charge him or not."

Rosander said the Swedish prosecutor is on vacation and no date has been set for the trip to London.

In a statement late Thursday, the office of Ecuador's chief prosecutor said Ecuadorean officials would handle the questioning under an accord signed with Sweden in December. The statement said chief prosecutor Galo Chiriboga would in the coming days designate a team to "receive" the testimony from Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

Assange's defense team said in a statement that it welcomed the steps to take the WikiLeaks founder's statement, which it said "comes after six years of complete inaction on the part of the Swedish prosecutor."

Sweden wants to question Assange about a rape claim, one of several allegations made against him by two women he met in 2010. Last year Swedish prosecutors dropped investigations into claims of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion because their five-year statues of limitations were expiring.

Assange, 45, fears that if he is extradited to Sweden he will be sent to the United States to be prosecuted for WikiLeaks' publication of secret documents, including reams of U.S. diplomatic cables.

Chelsea Manning, an American soldier who passed secret military and State Department documents to WikiLeaks, is serving a 35-year sentence in a military prison.

Assange faces arrest by British police if he leaves the building and, with the exception of occasional trips to the embassy balcony, has not been outside for years.

In February, a United Nations panel said Assange's stay at the embassy constituted arbitrary detention and he should be freed. The British and Swedish governments have rejected the non-binding findings of the U.N's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

In its statement, Ecuador said it stands by its 2012 commitment to grant Assange asylum due to "fears of political persecution."

___

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Frank Jordans in Berlin and Gonzalo Solano in Quito contributed to this story.

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