Defending himself against the Swedish allegations in Twitter feeds, Julian Assange said the accusations were “without basis.
Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks website who is embroiled in a fight with the Pentagon over the disclosure of secret military documents, was caught up in a new drama on Saturday when Swedish prosecutors sought him for questioning on allegations of rape and molestation — and then announced that the rape allegation was unfounded.
The abrupt reversal marked another strange twist to Mr. Assange's already complicated tale. A 39-year-old former computer hacker from Australia, Mr. Assange has become ever more elusive in recent weeks as the Obama administration hinted it might prosecute him for releasing about 77,000 classified Afghan war documents on the Internet last month. His confrontation with the administration has grown only more bitter as he warned that the organisation would soon release 15,000 more documents.
Using Skype and Twitter to communicate, Mr. Assange has expressed increased worries that the United States might try to stop his work, which is dedicated to exposing government and corporate secrets. Defending himself against the Swedish allegations on Saturday in Twitter feeds, he said the accusations were “without basis” and implied that they were payback for his disclosures. “We were warned to expect ‘dirty tricks.' Now we have the first one.”
The bizarre episode in Sweden on Saturday left more questions than answers, and it raised doubts about Mr. Assange's apparent strategy to make Sweden a new permanent home for himself and WikiLeaks because of the country's strong press freedom laws that he hoped would offer protection against legal actions.
Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for Sweden's national prosecutor's office, initially confirmed in a telephone interview on Saturday that Mr. Assange was wanted for questioning on allegations of rape and molestation, and that an arrest warrant had been issued on Friday. But shortly after that conversation, the prosecutor's office issued a statement on its website saying that the chief prosecutor, Eva Finne, had concluded there was no reason to believe Mr. Assange raped anyone and that the arrest warrant had been cancelled.
The prosecutor's office provided few details about the allegations, why it originally thought they merited an arrest warrant, or why prosecutors backtracked within 24 hours. Two Swedish newspapers said the allegations were made by two women who worked with WikiLeaks in Sweden, and the prosecutors told The Associated Press that they were still looking into an accusation of molestation.
In his attempts to be heard but stay hidden, Mr. Assange has reverted to a secretive, shadowy lifestyle. Two weeks ago, he announced an appearance at London's Frontline Club, then cancelled for “logistical”' reasons, and then rescheduled a few days later and appeared by Skype from Sweden.
Mr. Assange last week also agreed to write a regular column for the popular Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, which would qualify him as a Swedish journalist and safeguard him under the country's press laws. “It's no coincidence that I'm going to be writing for a Swedish paper,” Mr. Assange told the publication. “The Swedish publishing culture and Swedish law have supported us from the beginning.”
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Assange remained in Sweden, where he made his last public appearance on August 14 at a news conference in Stockholm to announce that WikiLeaks planned to defy Pentagon warnings and go ahead with the Internet posting of the additional 15,000 secret documents on the Afghanistan war, probably within a month. The website has come under widespread criticism since its original disclosure of American documents because some Afghan informants' names were published, possibly putting them in jeopardy. Mr. Assange did not respond immediately to attempts by reporters for The New York Times to reach him by email and telephone.
WikiLeaks officials have said they expected the U.S. to pressure the governments in Britain, Germany, Australia and other countries, where Mr. Assange travels and where WikiLeaks operates, to prosecute Mr. Assange and the organisation in reprisal for disclosing the Afghan war documents. Spokesmen for the Justice, State and Defense departments all denied on Saturday having any such contacts with foreign governments about WikiLeaks or Mr. Assange. “The United States government is evaluating whether Assange has broken any of our laws, and we assume other countries are doing the same,” Philip J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said by telephone.
A person familiar with the investigation told The Times late last month that Justice Department lawyers were exploring whether Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks could be charged with inducing, or conspiring in, violations of the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of national security information.
The Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel, after being given early access by WikiLeaks, published excerpts from an archive of 77,000 classified documents, but excluded those that identified individuals or could compromise operations. At the administration's request, The Times also forwarded a request to WikiLeaks not to post online any documents that would put informants in jeopardy.
Mr. Assange responded to the White House request by announcing that WikiLeaks was withholding 15,000 of the 92,000 Pentagon documents involved for review in what WikiLeaks has described as a “harm minimisation” process. — New York Times News Service
(John F. Burns reported from London, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington, Ravi Somaiya from London, and Liz Robbins from New York.)