The Trials of Julian Assange: A View From Sweden
On July 12 Julian Assange’s new legal team is scheduled to appeal before a London court his extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning in a sexual assault case brought by two Swedish women. Solicitor Gareth Peirce and barrister Ben Emmerson are respected human rights attorneys replacing a previous team described by Guardian investigations executive editor David Leigh as “high-priced Fleet Street lawyers.”
If Assange loses his July appeal, he can continue protesting his extradition to Sweden, ordered by a London court last February, by appealing to the United Kingdom’s supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Assange’s previous legal team had argued that London is a better sanctuary than Sweden, where he worries he will be extradited to the United States on WikiLeaks conspiracy charges now being explored by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia. In their legal submissions, Assange’s first set of attorneys argued that if Sweden ever extradited him to the United States, he could be detained at Guantánamo.
Referring to articles by this writer in The Nation, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Assange in a public forum in England on July 2 whether his legal strategy was changing with the appointment of Gareth Peirce. “Possibly,” he replied, but he denied any suggestion that his legal team had questioned the integrity of the two Swedish women charging him with sexual assault. “We have to be considerate,” he said, while continuing to question the Swedish system, including the fact that so far he has not been charged with a crime there. He renewed his criticism of the federal grand jury in Virginia, calling it a “star chamber” and a “political witch hunt.”
Peirce, an extradition expert, may be ultimately preparing for a US extradition demand, whether from London or Stockholm. In a lengthy 2010 London Review of Books essay, she argued that America’s legal approach regarding extradition procedure is contrary to European norms and in violation of the Convention on Torture: “practice after practice is accepted as standard in America which, in Europe, could risk the prohibition of a trial, or subsequently cause its nullification, or bring an end to the conditions of imprisonment it stipulated.”
If American authorities eventually indict Assange and demand his extradition, the proceedings could raise a firestorm of protest. But any extradition from Sweden would have to be approved by both Stockholm and London—under extradition law, an individual may not be extradited on one charge from nation A to nation B, and then extradited to nation C on a different charge. The prosecutors will be faced with strong opposition from the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden.
Why did Assange’s first set of lawyers argue that he’s safer from US extradition in Britain, the closest US ally in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the secret “war on terror”? They never explained. “It’s much easier for him to be snatched from here,” says Leigh from London. “The extradition treaty with the UK is controversial because it makes it easier.” There is more mass media in London and a more vibrant antiwar movement, but little to suggest that the British system is a model of human rights protection compared with Sweden. Even so, “the worry was that Sweden would be more under the thumb of the US than England, and appeals could take up years before an extradition to the US,” said to an American lawyer close to the Assange defense. “The theory always was that it was harder to get him out of the UK than out of Sweden.”
One British case that is giving Assange’s current strategists slight hope is that of a London-based computer hacker, Gary McKinnon, convicted of breaking into ninety-seven Pentagon computers in 2001–02. McKinnon has been the subject of an extradition standoff in which the Pentagon wants him and the British won’t formally refuse to comply, “but in fact he isn’t going anywhere,” says the Guardian’s Leigh.
Assange’s extradition to Sweden may be a far simpler case than extradition to America, because EU countries have streamlined procedures between member states. However, Peirce maintains that within the EU there is no automatic “extradition on demand”; rather, the procedures are elastic, subject to conditions. And for an offense to be extraditable, the alleged crime must be equivalent in both countries. She says Swedish law regarding sexual offenses “has marched ahead” of other EU states, “so the concepts don’t match.”
But Peirce is the first to acknowledge that the fine points of legal argument have been undermined by the attack on Swedish justice that Assange and his previous lawyers made—criticisms that have undermined the massive popular support in Sweden that the WikiLeaks founder once enjoyed. In an exclusive June 22 interview with The Nation about the charges her client faces in Stockholm, Peirce said, “The history of this case is as unfortunate as it is possible to imagine, in which encounters, undoubtedly believed by all parties at the time to be private, became inappropriately the subject of publicity and thereafter in consequence no doubt the more difficult to resolve.” So far, Assange is losing the legal arguments, according to every journalist, lawyer, prosecutor and political leader I talked to in Sweden the week of June 11–17.
“Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of fundamentalist feminism,” Assange remarked to friends after he arrived in London, according to the book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh and Luke Harding. He told the London Times that one of the plaintiffs, Anna Ardin, was a “notorious radical feminist” because she once wrote a seven-step proposal on how to take revenge against unfaithful men. He told the BBC show Today that the women were “bamboozled” and in a “tizzy.” On August 23, just days after the assault charges were first made, he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I don’t know what’s behind this. But we have been warned that the Pentagon, for example, is thinking of deploying dirty tricks to ruin us. And I have also been warned about sex traps.” His former lawyer, Mark Stephens, a libel attorney, also claimed that a secret force had set a “honeytrap” for Assange, a suggestion that Assange finally admitted in December was “not probable.” Still, Assange added, powerful interests might have been involved. Assange’s lawyers also charged that there were text messages speaking of revenge and an opportunity for the women “to make lots of money.”
After interviewing journalists, prosecutors and politicians across Sweden, I found no evidence of CIA or Swedish government conspiracies. Stockholm’s Donald Boström, one of the world’s tougher investigative journalists, who accompanied me to most of my interviews, was a go-between in the dispute between Assange and the two women. He told me, with great emphasis, that while there could be a conspiracy, from the inside it simply looked like a “golden gift to the police from Julian.”
“It’s a banal case, when people want it to be magical and dramatic,” said Eva Stackelberg, a well-known Stockholm photographer who lives with Boström and knows Assange well. “If you believe in somebody as a hero, you don’t want to accept that he’s just a normal man. You feel bad about yourself because you thought he was a hero.”
However, the perfect setup crime is theoretically still possible to some, because, as Michael Moore said when pledging $20,000 in bail money to Assange, no one should “be naïve about how the government works when it decides to go after its prey.” That argument has been resonant in parts of the blogosphere, despite the lack of evidence for it.
Still, the Stockholm case remains laced with interesting questions, among them:
§ Why was the complaint by the two women to the police released to the tabloid Expressen at 5 pm on Friday, August 20—the same day they were lodged—in time to circulate a rape charge against Assange in the global media? Oison Cantwell, a top investigative reporter for the large-circulation Swedish daily Aftonbladet, sees no evidence that it was the work of intelligence agencies. It is routine in Sweden that “all newspapers can pay people for information,” he said, including tips from police officers. The key question, he added, was why the sitting prosecutor confirmed Assange’s name. “If you have an arrest warrant, you don’t want [the target] to know, because he might leave the country.”
§ Why was the initial rape charge made and circulated by the desk prosecutor that Friday night, then discounted by a senior prosecutor, Eva Finne, only to be reinstated by a third prosecutor, Marianne Ny, who was a sex crimes specialist? Finne, having reviewed the allegations made by the two women, concluded that rape was an inappropriate charge. The two women then contacted a leading women’s rights attorney, Claes Borgström, who re-opened the case through Ny, a process common in Sweden.
§ One conspiracy theory circulating in Sweden is that one plaintiff, Anna Ardin, and her attorney, Borgström, were both active and allied members of the Social Democratic Party who were exploiting the case for political purposes. Ardin belongs to a branch of the Social Democrats, the Christian Social Democrats, and was running for Stockholm City Council at the time the charges were filed (she lost). Borgström is a former government equal opportunities ombudsman whose party lost the national election. Borgström claims not to have known Ardin before the incident. That they shared certain political interests doesn’t suggest a state- or US-sponsored conspiracy.
§ Are the two women anti-Assange or anti-WikLeaks? No. In fact, both were supporters of Assange and the project he founded. In the only interview she has given, Ardin said, “The charges are not orchestrated by the Pentagon or anyone else. The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who has a warped attitude to women, and a problem with taking ‘no’ for an answer.” She added, “He is not violent, and I do not feel threatened by him.” Borgström told me that he hopes Assange will never be extradited to the United States, a view that he believes the two women share.
§ Why didn’t the prosecutor Ny interview Assange while he was still in Sweden, or subsequently by Skype from London, to obtain his side of the story during the many weeks before she issued an arrest warrant? This gap in communications has never been explained adequately. There were several attempts by Assange’s lawyers to offer him for questioning, which Ny rejected for odd reasons, such as the unavailability of a police officer on a particular day. Ny approved Assange’s travel to London from Stockholm on September 27, then she refused his subsequent requests to be interviewed long-distance by Skype or other permissible means. On November 20 Interpol issued a “red notice” warrant for Assange’s arrest. He turned himself in in London, was denied bail, held in prison for nine days, then released on bail December 16. This is perhaps the oddest subplot, and may have led Assange to become increasingly skeptical, perhaps even paranoid, about the fairness of Swedish justice. But Ny was within her prosecutorial discretion to demand that he come in for an interview.