A senior Swedish prosecutor has begun interviewing Julian Assange at Ecuador’s embassy in London, six years after he was accused of rape by a woman in Stockholm.
The interview is a significant step forward in a case that has been locked in deadlock since Assange sought asylum in the small central London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden over the allegation, which he denies.
Ingrid Isgren, Sweden’s deputy chief prosecutor, arrived at the small central London embassy at 9.30am on Monday, accompanied by another woman, where she was met by dozens of photographers and film crews. She paused briefly for photographs but made no comment to waiting reporters.
Three days have been set aside for the interview, which follows years of legal and diplomatic wrangling between Sweden and Ecuador.
According to the arrangements agreed by the two countries, the questioning will be carried out by an Ecuadorean prosecutor, putting questions that have already been submitted by the Swedish prosecution authority.
Isgren will be able to ask for clarification of Assange’s answers, but cannot put fresh questions to him. The interview, which will be conducted with the aid of translators, will then be transcribed and sent to the Swedes.
Prosecutors have said they will seek to take a DNA sample from Assange, if he agrees.
The Wikileaks founder will be represented by an Ecuadorean lawyer in the interview. Jennifer Robinson, his legal adviser and a close ally, arrived mid morning.
“No one knows how these days will be spent,” Assange’s Swedish lawyer Per Samuelsson told broadcaster SVT. “Objectively speaking, there’s no doubt that it happened as Assange has told it. However, I am concerned that there is so much prestige associated with this case in Sweden. Prosecutors have staked their personal reputation on this.
“It can mean that they slide towards a prosecution even though they should not. I hope to God that they can have an open mind and look at this objectively from two sides, and not prosecute only to avoid problems.”
A small number of supporters gathered outside the embassy later in the morning and unfurled banners in support of Assange. Among them was the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who said he had come to express solidarity with the Australian.
Tatchell said he was “appalled” that it had taken Swedish prosecutors six years to come to interview him.
“I have always said that Julian Assange should answer the serious sex allegations. For the last six years he has been willing to answer those allegations. He has never been charged with any offence.”
Assange’s position is that leaving the embassy would leave him vulnerable to onward extradition to the US for potential prosecution over WikiLeaks’ releases of classified US embassy cables.
There was no sign of the Wikileaks founder on Monday, but his pet cat, which has its own Twitter account at @EmbassyCat, appeared at the window.
More than a dozen Metropolitan police officers arrived shortly before 1pm to hold back photographers, before Isgren left the embassy for a lunchtime break at about 1.30pm.
Some Assange supporters hope it could be a significant moment for the Australian, following the election of Donald Trump to the White House.
During his campaign, Trump declared “I love WikiLeaks!”, thanks to its repeated publication of Democratic party emails that proved highly damaging to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Many supporters of Assange and Trump have called on the president-elect to “pardon” him when he assumes office.
But the WikiLeaks founder has faced heated criticism since the election from other supporters who dispute the site’s assertions that its releases during the campaign were non-partisan. The site’s damaging leaks related only to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in releases apparently timed to cause her maximum damage.
Ecuador severed Assange’s internet connection at the embassy during the US election campaign over fears he was using it to influence the election.
His US attorney, Barry Pollack, told the Guardian that Trump could pardon Assange even though he has not been convicted in the US, citing the precedent of Gerald Ford’s pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixon. “So, absolutely President Trump could pardon Mr Assange and obviously we would welcome that.”
Monday’s interview follows a tortuous legal and diplomatic wrangle between Ecuador and Sweden before prosecutors consented to interview the Australian in London, and then until the two sides agreed arrangements.
A spokeswoman for the Swedish chief prosecutor, Marianne Ny, said questioning through a foreign prosecutor was common practice in matters of international legal assistance, but that this protocol had been one of the reasons for Ny’s prolonged insistence that Assange should come to Sweden for questioning, since “[she] was of the opinion it would affect the quality of the interview”.
In November 2014, Sweden’s appeal court rejected Assange’s appeal against the warrant, but criticised Ny stating that her “failure” to examine alternative avenues of investigation “is not in line with [her] obligation – in the interests of everyone concerned – to move the matter forward”.
Last year, the deadline passed for Ny to charge Assange over allegations of sexual assault by a second woman, forcing prosecutors to drop that part of their investigation.