The Assange Affair Continues

Bernard Porter

First, a number of disclaimers. I’m not an uncritical admirer of Julian Assange, especially in relation to what he has admitted he has done – quite apart from the criminal allegations against him – in his personal life. In brief, he seems to me to be a bit of a cad. Beyond that, I have no opinion as to his legal guilt or otherwise.

I’m also not entirely in favour of WikiLeaks’ activities. I think you need to preserve diplomatic confidentiality in many areas. To qualify this, however, I’m not terribly disturbed – or impressed – by most of the ‘revelations’ in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010, few of which can reasonably be thought to threaten any nation’s security. (Dignity and reputation a little, perhaps. That’s no bad thing.)

On the other side, I’m certainly not anti-Swedish. I live there much of the time, and consider its political, economic and social institutions far superior to Britain’s. Recent events have led me to question the fairness of Sweden’s judicial processes, a view shared by a number of Swedes; but that should be put in the context of my overall Swedophilia.

Lastly, I’m not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – this in relation to suspicions that the whole Assange affair was a put-up job by the CIA – although, having worked in this area (the history of ‘counter-subversion’), I would never dismiss the possibility of any ‘conspiracy’ out of hand. I hope that’s clear.

The Assange affair really is a very curious one. Apparently he was interviewed once, voluntarily, in connection with the rape accusations, by the Stockholm police – the alleged offences took place in Stockholm – who came to the conclusion that he had no charges to answer, and could travel back to England. It was only later that a prosecutor in far-away Gothenburg, Marianne Ny, who is celebrated for her vigorous campaigns in defence of women, decided to reopen the case and demand Assange’s extradition back to Sweden. This was under new European legislation passed in 2003, supposedly in order to expedite the prosecution of terrorists, which has few of the safeguards that most extradition treaties used to have. In particular, it does not require the suspect to have been charged with any offence. Any properly accredited prosecutor can demand extradition merely for questioning. (By the time of Assange’s last appeal, the matter had been narrowed down to the question of whether Ny was so accredited.)

By this point, it seems, Assange had become suspicious. The cack-handed early conduct of his case may have started that off. He offered to be interviewed by the Swedish authorities in the UK, or by videolink – a fairly common practice for those merely wanted for questioning, and cheaper and less troublesome, one would have thought, than the way things have turned out – but Ny, or the Swedish government, turned this down.

Why? This is where the suspicions of America came in. The US has been ‘witch-hunting’ WikiLeaks for some time – as Assange put it, speaking from a window of the Ecuadorian Embassy yesterday. Stories flew around the internet alleging secret American involvement in the case, bolstered by calls in American right-wing circles for him to be extradited to the US to be tried for espionage and executed. Allegedly the paperwork is already prepared for that. Assange's supposed source, Bradley Manning, is being treated appallingly, and threatened with death. With regards to Sweden, WikiLeaks revealed that the Swedish government had deliberately misled its people over the degree of its complicity in such American actions as ‘extraordinary rendition’. Even if it’s only a slight chance, you can see why Assange could have been worried about being extradited to Sweden, only to be sent on to the US.

At the same time, Assange’s people may have also been made aware of certain features of the Swedish judicial system which will have made them uneasy, brought up as they were in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political independence of the courts, trial by jury and so on. These include, as I understand it, long solitary confinement for suspects, and courts presided over by a judge flanked by two political appointees. (I've witnessed this.) In February 2011 the Swedish prime minister Fredrick Reinfeldt weighed in with a highly prejudicial comment about the case, which in Britain might have had him charged with contempt of court. These doubts about the Swedish system may be groundless; but it’s easy to see how they might alarm someone from a more (superficially) democratic judicial culture.

In view of these two factors it was surely not unreasonable for Assange to want to resist extradition to Sweden, unless he were given the two assurances he has consistently sought: that his police examination take place in Britain; and that if he were extradited to Sweden, he couldn’t then be extradited again to a third country. (That used to be one of the basic stipulations of British extradition law.) It isn’t enough to say that the US has made no formal request yet; or that Swedish compliance with such a request may be unlikely; or that the US could just as well seek to extradite him from Britain. (Wouldn’t that meet with more opposition here? In Sweden Assange has far less of a following, partly because of the sex charges against him; and people are generally more prepared to trust the government.) If he were given one or both of these pledges, it would at least test his repeated assurances that he is not trying to avoid Swedish justice over the sex charges, which he believes he can disprove.

It is also surely curious – even suspicious? – that the Swedish authorities should resist both of these requests, especially in present circumstances, when granting them would at one leap free them as well as the British and Ecuadorian governments, from the awkward impasse they’ve got themselves into. It might mean one or two people – Marianne Ny, William Hague, Assange himself – having to step down from their high horses. But isn’t that what ‘diplomacy’ is supposed to be about?


  • 21 August 2012 at 10:21am
    philip proust says:
    Writing for the New Statesman, David Allen Green gives the legal opinion that the two assurances which Julian Assange seeks are not able to be met by Sweden, given the progress that the prosecutor has already made in the case. The idea 'that his police examination take place in Britain' or via a video hook-up misses the point that the prosecutor is seeking to arrest Assange; he is not wanted for mere questioning, as an order for his arrest has been issued. When he is arrested he will then be subject to 'interrogation', presumably after he has been softened up by a two-week period of solitary confinement. He cannot be charged with the crime of rape until he is arrested and interrogated. Arrest must precede interrogation under the terms of Swedish law.

    Secondly, Green claims that international law does not allow for an agreement between Assange and Sweden to the effect that he won't be extradited to the US; apparently each extradition request must be judged on its merits. Any prior 'agreement' between Sweden and Assange would not have the force of law.

    In my opinion, once inside Sweden there can be no guarantee that the rule of Swedish law will apply; for example, the country's previous willingness to allow rendition requests indicates that CIA intervention cannot be ruled out. One does not have to maintain that Assange will definitely be extradited to the US to argue that he is right to hold fast in Equador's embassy; to point out that he is in danger of such an adverse outcome is enough.

    • 21 August 2012 at 12:00pm
      Bernard Porter says: @ philip proust
      Thanks for this clarification. I'd missed the NS piece. But I wonder if it isn't too legalistic? Clever lawyers and diplomats can always find ways around these things. (Or crooked governments, like the US's, Sweden's and indeed ours over 'rendition'.) Regarding request (1), Sweden could make an exception in an exceptional case, as I believe it has done before; and re (2), perhaps it could agree to return Assange (eventually) to Britain before any extradition request from the US, which then would be have to be made to the UK.

      All the more shame, in my view, that Britain so radically changed her extradition conventions in 2003. It used to be clear that people extradited for one offence could not then be be charged with - or I think re-extradited for - another. Otherwise it was thought the process could be abused.

      I repeat: this is what diplomacy is supposed to be for.

    • 21 August 2012 at 7:11pm
      alex says: @ Bernard Porter
      It seems to me what's happened is that politicians, diplomats and judges are annoyed that this apparently uncouth geek from down under with the bad hair, sordid Swedish sex and prospective Latin American gap year has shown their 'robust' professional procedures to be as full of expensive holes as US digital security or Swiss cheese. It would take a Roland Barthes to unpick the cultural semiotics, the degree to which was he has (or hasn't) done violates ingrained narratives of how things should in theory work and who gets to run the show. It hurts their amour propre and they want to get schoolmasterly with him, can't bring themselves to negotiate. (I think you mentioned Murdoch's anti-Brit chippiness earlier; this is the observe, the anti-anti-podeanism.)

    • 24 August 2012 at 3:16pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Bernard Porter
      According to Glenn Greenwald writing on the Guardian website today, Green is wrong about the second point that Philip Proust mentions. According to Greenwald, the Swedish government, not the Swedish courts, would have the final say on whether to extradite Assange. On that basis, he argues, they could make a commitment not to extradite him on to the USA.

  • 22 August 2012 at 8:30am
    Christopher Handy says:
    You are quite mistaken on at least one point; the European Arrest Warrant may only be issued for persons against whom there is a prosecution. It is not issued for 'questioning'. Mr Assange may be wanted for 'questioning', but this 'questioning' is a formal interview before a magistrate prior to preferment of charges (a correspondent stage to indictment under English law). This issue was raised in Mr Assange's appeal before the Magistrates' Court and the High Court here in the UK; the grounds for appeal were dismissed, and the finding was that, allowing for the differences in the Swedish legal system, the case against him was at a stage equivalent to his having been charged under English law.