Swedish prosecutors won permission Thursday from a Stockholm court to seek an international arrest warrant for Julian Assange, the founder of the WikiLeaks website, whom they want to question about allegations of rape and other sexual offenses.
The accusations stem from encounters that Assange, 39, had with two women during a visit to Sweden in August. Assange denies any unlawful conduct, saying that his relations with the women were consensual.
But the Swedish Prosecution Authority said it wanted to bring Assange in for questioning and asked the district court in Stockholm to declare him detained in absentia. The declaration is a preliminary step to requesting an international arrest warrant for him, probably to be issued through Interpol.
"We need to interrogate him. So far, we have not been able to meet with him to accomplish the interrogations," said Marianne Ny, Sweden's director of public prosecution.
Assange, who is Australian, is believed to be in London, though his British lawyer, Mark Stephens, declined to reveal his whereabouts. Stephens lambasted the prosecutors' move to try to haul his client back to Sweden, saying that Ny's office had rebuffed repeated offers from Assange to cooperate in the investigation, both when he was in Sweden during the summer and later in London.
"It's perfectly easy for them to get on a plane and come here to meet him, and he's perfectly happy to do that. But this prosecutrix has set her face against that, for reasons that are inexplicable," Stephens said, adding that Assange was in no way "a fugitive from justice."
It was the latest wrinkle in a strange case that Assange has suggested may be an act of retaliation, perhaps by the United States, for publishing hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. documents pertaining to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The leaks have been excoriated by Washington and some of its allies, who say the information could endanger their Afghan informers.
The allegations against Assange by the two women first surfaced in August. An investigation of charges of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion was opened in Stockholm, but the city's chief prosecutor quickly decided to drop the case. Ny's office later reopened the investigation.
Few details of the allegations have emerged. Stephens said Assange has still not been formally notified of the nature of the charges or of any evidence there may be against him.
An attorney for the two complainants hailed the Stockholm court's decision to allow prosecutors to seek an international warrant.
"Finally. This has been stressful for my clients," said lawyer Claes Borgstroem, according to the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. "It's clear that Julian Assange absconds."
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 to promote transparency, especially in nations ruled by repressive regimes. Its leaks have been controversial, including the tens of thousands of Pentagon documents on Afghanistan. U.S. authorities are investigating the unauthorized release but have yet to identify who passed the information to WikiLeaks.