The Trials of Julian Assange: A View From Sweden

The Trials of Julian Assange: A View From Sweden

The Trials of Julian Assange: A View From Sweden

The WikiLeaks editor is not only fighting extradition in the sexual assault case. He’s also worried about potential conspiracy charges by a grand jury in Virginia.


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.

Beyond these strange details, there is indeed a close relationship between Sweden and the United States in foreign affairs. Long gone are the days of Olof Palme, Sweden’s popular two-term prime minister who opposed the Vietnam War and advocated coexistence during the cold war and a nuclear-free Europe. Since those years Sweden has moved into the US orbit while remaining technically neutral. Its center-right governing coalition has 53 percent support, including from the far-right anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, while the center-left represents 48 percent. The largest single party, the Social Democrats, with 31.5 percent, supports the Afghanistan war and the US global anti-terror campaign, and is more or less allied with NATO. In 2001 the Swedes carried out an “extraordinary rendition” of two Muslim detainees from Stockholm to Egypt, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari. Both men were tortured in custody. Human Rights Watch and the UN human rights body condemned the Swedish policy as a violation of the global Convention Against Torture.

According to my interview with Mehmet Kaplan, a Swedish Green Party MP who is a former parliamentary liaison to the country’s intelligence agency SAPO, one official who would have been involved in implementing these renditions, Tomas Bodström, testified under oath that he didn’t know where the orders came from. Bodström, a spy novelist and Social Democratic politician, happens to be the law partner of Claes Borgström, the women’s attorney in the Assange matter.

Kaplan told me that Bodström said under oath he couldn’t remember how the renditions occurred. Bodström subsequently moved to the United States for personal reasons but is expected back in Sweden soon. Anna Lindh, who as foreign minister at the time would also have had some responsibility for the two renditions, was stabbed to death on September 11, 2003, by a Swedish-born Serbian extremist who heard voices, before she was able to explain who requested and gave the green light for the renditions.

In a more recent development, the week before I arrived in Stockholm the Swedish press reported that the CIA station chief and two other American spies left the country after it was discovered that they had been carrying out unauthorized spying activities in Sweden. When I interviewed Kaplan, he told me that the station chief “would have been in charge of WikiLeaks,” but Kaplan denied that the CIA spy case had anything to do with the Assange case. He told me the secret CIA operations were never revealed to him during his four years as a parliamentary liaison to SAPO. Kaplan said, “The scandal probably will not be linked to anything except illegal operations on Swedish soil,” and not to WikiLeaks. The minister of justice, Beatrice Ask, who refused a Nation interview request, has until September to explain to the Swedish Parliament what happened. “It will all come out,” Kaplan believes.

I also met with Urban Ahlin, deputy chair of the Social Democratic Party’s foreign affairs committee, to explore the CIA activities. Ahlin told me that the dispute was that the US government wanted a formal agreement with the Swedes on counterterrorism and spying on Swedish soil, “but Sweden wanted it like today, just do it and be quiet.” Ahlin began our conversation, held in a parliamentary office, by saying that “Sweden is run by the law,” and therefore that he would take no position on the Assange case before “I see what the US is accusing him of; then I will have my personal opinion.”

Ahlin is mentioned in a 2008 cable from the US embassy in Stockholm to the State Department, in which Ahlin is described as asking for help in promoting humanitarian stories from Afghanistan, “such as how the Swedish and NATO efforts are allowing girls to go to school, keeping the country from being taken over by drug lords, and keeping the Taliban from oppressing the people.” The cable quoted him as noting “that he is perceived as being on the right wing of his party on security issues and relations with the US. He is well-wired across the spectrum in Stockholm,” the cable continued, and is “willing to play a useful role regarding Afghanistan and Kosovo.”

These reports of Swedish collusion in CIA operations and in promoting the Afghanistan war are the kinds of things that might well put Julian Assange and his supporters in a defensive crouch toward Sweden. If that’s not enough, there is evidence of a Pentagon “battle of perceptions,” in which it has reportedly deployed 120 analysts and operatives against WikiLeaks from a special facility near the Pentagon; this is described in a September 12, 2010, Daily Beast article by Philip Shenon, who was an investigative reporter for the New York Times from 1981 to 2008.

* * *

What next? Everyone I interviewed in Sweden expected Assange to be extradited there sooner or later. The dilemma for his defense team is that the longer he fights it, the greater the loss of support in the country where he may be tried on sex charges and where he may eventually need public support in a legal battle against extradition to the United States (although as mentioned earlier, any future extradition to the United States from Sweden would require the approval of the legal authorities in both Sweden and Britain, since the US charges concerning a WikiLeaks conspiracy would be different from the sexual assault inquiry Assange is faced with in Sweden).

It should be emphasized that Assange is wanted in Sweden for questioning only. After that questioning the prosecutors will make their decision about whether to press charges. There are various possibilities: The two women could decide to withdraw charges. Assange could be found innocent at trial. Or he could be convicted, and receive anything from a fine to a maximum of what I was told by legal experts could be up to four years in prison. The most likely time the United States would demand his extradition would be only after all that is done. But nothing, it seems, is predictable in this case.

Meanwhile, the federal grand jury impaneled in Alexandria, Virginia, is exploring possible charges to bring against Assange. One of the US lawyers researching the extradition issues for Assange was Leonard Weinglass, who died of cancer this past March 23. (Disclosure: Weinglass was my oldest and best friend, and I talked with him extensively by phone about the civil liberties issues involved.) In one of my conversations with Weinglass, he predicted that the Pentagon and Justice Department want “a photo op of Assange in manacles being walked off a plane in the United States.”

This was at a time when many pundits and politicians here were apoplectic in their calls for Assange’s jailing or even execution. The climate of rage may have cooled in subsequent months, but Weinglass’s predictions could still be on track. Weinglass was a lawyer in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case; he was certain the US government would try to avoid in this case a legal battle with mainstream media outlets comparable to Richard Nixon’s against the New York Times. Instead, Weinglass felt, the US grand jury might be looking at possible conspiracies to steal government documents, or violations of laws dealing with computer and cable network protections.

Weinglass also predicted a conspiracy charge against Assange, with Pfc. Bradley Manning as an unindicted co-conspirator, the party who allegedly gave the cable trove to Assange and/or WikiLeaks. Manning is now in solitary confinement at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on charges that he transferred classified data onto a personal computer and communicated national defense information to an unauthorized source. In March an additional twenty-two charges were filed against Manning. If convicted, he faces life imprisonment. No trial date has been set for in his case. Weinglass believed the government was trying to force Manning to testify against Assange in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Weinglass also said the government was going after what he called a small network of “gay computer guys” and professors who are part of Boston’s famous “republic of hackers” around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Manning is a gay Marine who once demonstrated against the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). Perhaps confirming the Weinglass prediction, on May 25 subpoenas were issued by the Justice Department to David House, an MIT researcher; Tyler Watkins, an ex-boyfriend of Manning; and Nadia Heninger, a cryptograph expert at Princeton.

House was one of the few people allowed to visit Manning while he was being held at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia; House described Manning’s treatment there as abusive to the mainstream media. A top State Department official, P.J. Crowley, speaking at MIT, of all places, on March 10, condemned the Pentagon’s treatment of Manning as “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid.” Crowley was promptly forced to resign.

“It’s all a bit too overheated in the States,” Leigh thinks. “They have hotheads in the Pentagon who already have Manning to jump on. Manning hasn’t struck a deal. The Manning thing was a big one-off, all coming from one man, Manning. It was unique. The US already has stopped circulating such information” by putting tighter clamps on access to and distribution of diplomatic and military cables.

Why is the United States pursuing Assange as the conspiratorial mastermind of WikiLeaks, when his reputation, credibility and organization have been so damaged? If Washington attempts to extradite him, will that not resurrect Assange to the status of outlaw hero? Will a jury of twelve Americans ever convict him? Will the higher courts affirm the legality of an indictment? How will the reputation of the United States suffer around the world, now that WikiLeaks documents are used routinely as sources in the mainstream media? Has the Obama administration seriously considered whether it might regret what it now wishes for? And will the plight of Bradley Manning as a scapegoat gradually draw more and more worldwide sympathy?

As I left Stockholm, a meeting of one hundred concerned citizens issued a public declaration in support of Manning, whose case has received little attention in Sweden, and opposing any possible extradition of Assange to the United States. Many signatories said they believed as well that Assange should take the next plane to Stockholm and respect the judicial process in the case of the two women.

Postscript: I became engaged in the WikiLeaks story when it broke, and have written twenty-two blogs on it since July 28, 2010. Though the whole truth may not be known for years, if ever, I believe it is crucial to follow the facts without imposing an ideological framing or excessive speculation. The original heroic narrative about revelations of war crimes and government secrets is frequently diverted today by speculation about sex crimes (in the Assange case) and homosexuality (in the Manning case). The issues of gender and sexual orientation must be addressed with sensitivity, neither ignored nor rejected as diversionary gossip. None should forget, however, what inspired the downloading of secret documents in the first place, and the content of those documents. Those disclosures, reported faithfully in The Nation, include:
§ 15,000 civilian casualties in Iraq, which had never been acknowledged;
§ “fragmentary orders” (FRAGOS) instructing US troops not to investigate torture when conducted by American allies;
§ the CIA’s secret army of 3,000 in Afghanistan;
§ Task Force 373, which carries out night-time hunter-killer raids in Afghanistan;
§ the impossibility of fixing Afghan government corruption, according to the US ambassador in Kabul;
§ a party for Afghan security recruits by the private military company DynCorp featuring trafficked boys as entertainment;
§ the fact that the Afghan vice president carried $52 million out of the country in a suitcase.
That’s only a few bleeding slivers from 390,136 Iraq documents and 76,607 from Afghanistan. I wonder how many military rapes and cases of stolen money are contained in those documents?

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