British Judge Howard Riddle ruled on February 24 that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden to be questioned about allegations of sexual assault. This is despite the fact that Assange has not been charged with any criminal act. The verdict marks a new stage in efforts undertaken by Washington to silence Wikileaks’ disclosure of the criminal actions undertaken by the US government across the world.
Assange has made clear his intention to appeal the ruling. An article by Mark Stevens, one of Assange’s lawyers, printed in the February 25 British Guardian, argued: “Assange will, according to the judge’s finding of fact, be held in prison in solitary confinement when he is returned to Sweden and will then be interrogated, held without bail and later subjected to a secret trial on accusations that have been bruited around the world…”
The Wikileaks founder was arrested in London on December 6 on a European Arrest Warrant issued by the Swedish authorities, alleging sexual assault by two women in Sweden. One woman alleges that, in one instance, Assange failed to use a condom. The other alleges that on one occasion Assange had sexual intercourse while she was not fully awake. At the end of August, Swedish police questioned Assange about these allegations. The following day Sweden’s chief prosecutor, Eva Finne, dropped the investigation into these allegations on the grounds that there was no “reason to suspect that he had committed rape”.
By this time, however, the allegations had been disclosed to the media by the Swedish authorities, contrary to Swedish law. The rape investigation was then re-opened at the instigation of Claes Borgstrom, acting for the women, by independent Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny. Borgstrom is a Social Democrat who served in government between 2000 and 2007. One of the two women making the allegations is associated with the Christian wing of Swedish Social Democracy. Assange remained in Sweden for more than five weeks after the initial allegations were made against him. Repeated attempts by Assange to meet with Ny failed, his lawyers say. Ny reportedly then granted Assange permission to fly to London – but later issued the European arrest warrant (EAW).
In a statement following Judge Riddle’s decision, Assange described the court proceedings as a “rubber stamping process” and the “result of a European Arrest Warrant system run amok”. While the verdict came as “no surprise”, he said, it is “nonetheless wrong”. He added that there had been “no consideration or examination of even the complaints against me in Sweden”. He asked: “Why is it that I am subject – a non-profit free speech activist – that I am subject to a £120,000 bail, that I am subject to house arrest when I have never been charged in any country?” Assange’s lawyers have argued that “there is a real risk that, if extradited to Sweden, the US will seek his extradition and/or illegal rendition to the USA, where there will be a real risk of him being detained at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere”.
The mainstream media in the US claimed this was a ridiculous exaggeration – but the risk can’t be taken lightly. US politicians have called Assange a “terrorist” and for him to be jailed under the Espionage Act. Several have openly stated that he should be executed. According to US documents disclosed by Wikileaks, in 2007 Sweden revoked the political refugee status of two Egyptian men, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari, and handed them over to the CIA agents at Stockholm airport, where they were then flown to Egypt and tortured – after the US government threatened to impose a trade embargo against Sweden. Already a US grand jury has reportedly been empanelled in Virginia to hear evidence of “espionage” against Assange, although it is not known if an indictment has been returned.
Assange’s lawyers have argued that the issuing of a European arrest warrant last year was improper since he has not been formally charged in Sweden. Stevens told Bloomberg News in February that EAWs have only ever been “used when someone is a fugitive from justice or the person has been charged, and they’re wanted for a trial”. According to Bloomberg: “Such warrants are difficult to fight, and Sweden may have given Assange a rare defense by seeking to detain him in the UK before charges were filed, perhaps because they were under pressure from the US.” In court, Sven-Erik Alhem, a former chief prosecutor in Sweden who testified on Assange’s behalf, said Swedish prosecutor Marianne Ny “should have made sure Assange was able to give his version of events in detail” before issuing the EAW. He also said there was no reason why Assange couldn’t have been questioned in Britain – something his lawyers say that Assange has offered to submit to repeatedly, at either Scotland Yard or the Swedish Embassy in London.
An allegation of sexual assault is a serious issue, but it’s impossible to take the allegations against Assange at face value, given the circumstances of the case and the attack on him by the US government. As a statement issued by Katrin Axelsson on behalf of the British Women Against Rape group, published in the December 9 Guardian observed, “Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations. Women in Sweden don’t fare better than we do in Britain when it comes to rape. Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased. On 23 April 2010 Carina Hagg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Goteborgs-Posten that ‘up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported’…
“Assange, who it seems has no criminal convictions, was refused bail in England despite sureties of more than £120,000. Yet bail following rape allegations is routine. For two years we have been supporting a woman who suffered rape and domestic violence from a man previously convicted after attempting to murder an ex-partner and her children – he was granted bail while police investigated. There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.”
Unfortunately, the defence of Assange against the threat of political repression has been undermined by sexist assumptions voiced by Assange. In an interview with the December 27 Australian, Assange claimed that “Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism” and “I fell into a hornets’ nest of revolutionary feminism”. Sweden has a law protecting the right of sex partners to withdraw consent during sex as well as protecting a partner’s right to have a condom used. The law simply enshrines the idea that consent should be seen as a continuous contract that can be withdrawn at any time, for any reason. Not wearing a condom, when the assumption is that a condom will be used, does constitute sexual assault because it is a violation of a woman’s ability to have control over her own reproductive health (pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases included).
Protests in support of Wikileaks and in defense of Julian Assange are continuing around the world. The next rally in Sydney is on March 6, 1pm at Sydney Town Hall.