LONDON - Swedish prosecutors on Friday dropped a seven-year rape investigation targeting Julian Assange, a legal victory for the WikiLeaks founder who has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London since 2012.
But British police said they would still arrest Assange if he tried to leave the embassy, saying he had breached the terms of his bail by refusing to turn himself in when an arrest warrant was issued in 2012.
Friday was the deadline for the Swedish public prosecutor's office to either renew the pan-European arrest warrant or lift it.
Marianne Ny, Sweden's director of public prosecution, said in a statement that the rape investigation was dropped because "there is no reason to believe that the decision to surrender him to Sweden can be executed in the foreseeable future."
"In view of the fact that all prospects of pursuing the investigation under present circumstances are exhausted, it appears that it is no longer proportionate to maintain the arrest of Julian Assange in his absence," she added.
Shortly after the announcement, Assange posted on Twitter a picture of himself smiling broadly, without comment.
A lawyer on Assange's legal team, Per Samuelsson, told Swedish radio the decision was "a total victory", saying that Assange was "of course happy and relieved".
Samuelsson also said that the decision meant Assange "is free to leave the embassy whenever he wants", though he later told the TT news agency that he did not know when Assange might leave.
"What I do know is that Sweden does not stop him from doing it. Sweden is out of the game," he said.
- 'Abuse of procedure' -
Another lawyer, Christophe Marchand, said that "We have been waiting a long time for this decision".
"Julian Assange has been a victim of a huge abuse of procedure. We are very pleased and very moved, as this marks the end of his nightmare."
The accusation against Assange dated from August 2010 when the alleged victim, who says she met him at a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm a few days earlier, filed a complaint.
She accused him of having sex with her as she slept without using a condom despite repeatedly having denied him unprotected sex.
The 45-year-old Australian has always denied the allegations, which he feared would see him extradited to the United States and put on trial over the leaking of hundreds of thousands of secret US military and diplomatic documents.
In November, Swedish prosecutor Ingrid Isgren was present during Assange's questioning at the Ecuadorian embassy as she posed questions through an Ecuadorian prosecutor.
Swedish prosecutors received a translation of the interrogation four months later, but "all materials were translated into Spanish then into English then back into Spanish then into Swedish," Ny said, making it difficult for the investigation to move forward.
On Friday, Assange's accuser called the prosecutor's decision a "scandal", her lawyer said Friday.
"It is a scandal that a suspected rapist can escape justice and thereby avoid the courts," the lawyer, Elisabeth Fritz, said in an email.
"My client is shocked and no decision to (end the case) can make her change that Assange exposed her to rape," she said.
- Endless delays -
The investigation had suffered from multiple procedural complications since it began.
The statute of limitations on the rape allegation expires in August 2020.
In a letter sent to the Swedish government on May 8, Ecuador condemned "the obvious lack of progress" in the investigation despite Assange's questioning in the presence of the Swedish prosecutor at the embassy in November 2016.
Swedish judges had also refused to take into account the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which in February 2016 said Assange was effectively "arbitrarily detained" by Sweden and Britain and called for the arrest warrant to be annulled.
Assange's Swedish lawyer last month filed a new motion demanding that the arrest warrant be lifted after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April that arresting Assange would be "a priority".
"This implies that we can now demonstrate that the US has a will to take action... this is why we ask for the arrest warrant to be cancelled so that Julian Assange can fly to Ecuador and enjoy his political asylum," he said at the time.
But the British police have said they will arrest Assange as soon as he walks out of the embassy because he broke his conditions for bail -- a relatively minor offence under British law -- by failing to surrender on June 29, 2012 for extradition to Sweden.
Assange was arrested by Britain in December 2010 and released on bail while fighting the extradition order to Sweden, a bid that finally failed in June 2012 when Britain's Supreme Court declined to reopen the appeal.
Shortly afterward, he lodged his request for asylum in Ecuador and fled to the country's embassy in London.
A spokesman for Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said his case would be referred to a judge, and he could face a maximum jail term of one year.