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Prosecutors Question Julian Assange Over Sex-Crime Accusations

Police officers are surrounded by media as they stand outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on Monday, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was set to be questioned over a rape allegation against him.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange began facing questions from prosecutors Monday in connection to sex-crime allegations dating back to 2010.

Swedish authorities have been trying for years to question Assange. They say they need to interview him before making a decision about whether to press charges in the case, which began when two women accused Assange of sexual misconduct, including rape, in Sweden.

Assange, who denies the accusations, took refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London four years ago to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning. He's remained there ever since, running WikiLeaks from inside the embassy. Since he took refuge, the statute of limitations has run out on some of the accusations, but prosecutors are continuing to investigate the rape allegation.

Last week, Swedish authorities announced they had worked out an arrangement with Ecuador to allow them to interview Assange.

Larry Miller, reporting for NPR from London, said the agreement calls for Swedish prosecutors and police to be present for the questioning. An Ecuadorian official will actually ask the questions.

Swedish officials also want Assange to take a DNA test.

The questioning could take several days, The Associated Press reports.

Civil rights activist Peter Tatchell told the AP that Assange was being "hounded" because of what he called WikiLeaks' revelations about the actions of major governments, including the U.S.

Assange, for his part, has maintained that concern over state-sponsored retaliation against him is why he refuses to travel to Sweden for questioning. Here's more from Miller:

"Assange, who denies the [sex crime] accusations, has not left the embassy where he's been given asylum since jumping bail more than four years ago. He says he fears being sent to the U.S. and tried for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

"Ecuador has asked Sweden and Britain for guarantees Assange will not be extradited to a third country, but such assurances have not been forthcoming."

The AP has details on the charges in the case:

"The sex crime allegations were made shortly after Assange and WikiLeaks became well known worldwide for releasing hundreds of thousands of pages of classified government documents.

"One Swedish woman said Assange intentionally damaged a condom and pinned her down while having sex. A second woman said Assange had sex with her without a condom while she was asleep.

"In Sweden, having sex with an unconscious, drunk or sleeping person can lead to a rape conviction punishable by up to six years in prison."

Assange initially faced allegations on four charges, including unlawful coercion and sexual molestation, as we've reported. But three of the four allegations have since expired, under Swedish statutes of limitations, and only the charge of rape is currently being investigated.

WikiLeaks has been in the headlines over the past few months for its role in the U.S. elections: The organization released emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and others it identified as being from Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe the Russian government was involved in the hacking of some of the documents WikiLeaks released. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the question of responsibility is "irrelevant."

In response to the election-related releases, Ecuador restricted Assange's Internet access. The Ecuadorian government released a statement saying it "respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states" and was temporarily restricting the internet to limit Assange's communications, but without stopping WikiLeaks from "journalistic activities."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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