The media madness surrounding Wikileaks founder Julian Assange hit new peaks this week after his bail appearance in a London court. Temperatures rose when it was reported that Swedish authorities appealed the judge’s decision to release Assange on bail. This later turned out to have been false: the British Crown Prosecutor’s Office was the source of the appeal, although Assange’s lawyers were quick to raise questions about what was behind the appeal. The day before the appeals decision, Assange’s UK lawyer Mark Stephens spoke to Al Jazeera, alongside LoR’s Mark Taylor.
Stephens did an excellent job of defending his client and placing a question mark over the decisions of Swedish prosecutors to seek the extradition of Assange to Sweden as part of their investigation into allegations made by two women that Assange sexually molested them in August 2010. Assange has not been charged and denies the allegations and there are questions as to why the Swedish authorities seem so intent on pursuing the case.
Calls by the right in the U.S. and Canada for Assange to be treated as a terrorist mean there is every reason to be nervous about attempts to bend the law to bring charges against Assange or Wikileaks in the U.S.The New York Times reported this week that the Justice Department was trying to build a case for a conspiracy charge against Assage for in effect aiding and abetting the alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning. That allegation Assange has denied, telling CBS news “”I had never heard of the name Bradley Manning before it was published in the press. Wikileaks’ technology [was] designed from the very beginning to make sure that we never know the identities or names of people submitting us material. That is, in the end, the only way the sources can be guaranteed that they remain anonymous, as far as we are concerned.”
Meanwhile, some of his supporters in the media (some of whom also who ponied up the USD 300,000 for Assange’s bail in the U.K.), have been having a go at Sweden. Michael Moore and Naomi Klein attacked Sweden for pursuing the case , arguing the rape allegations against Assange – or at the least the way the prosecution has pursued this case where it might not have pursued less famous suspects in Sweden – are an obvious sign of bias and evidence that the Swedes are simply doing the bidding of the U.S. in an attempt to silence or smear Assange and by association Wikileaks.
The problem with Moor’s argument is that there is another and very mundane reading of the evidence he presents (high rape statistics in Sweden, lower prosecution levels, political pressure). There are more sexual assaults reported, in Sweden than anywhere else because women in Sweden know they can use the law to defend themselves and because the law on sex crimes affords them more opportunity to do so than in other countries (many of which don’t have the elements of sexual molestation and coercion, in addition to rape, as in Sweden). That there are problems of enforcement, no one contests. All the evidence we have from the media, including the details of the allegations and the resulting legal process released by the Guardian this week, indicates that the allegations should be allowed to proceed through the Swedish legal process.
Is the Swedish case political? It would be impossible for such a high profile case not to be. Seen from the perspective of a prosecutor the question really is not “Why go after Assange?” but “Why not go after him?”. Assange’s celebrity only heightens the Swedish public’s attention to the prosecution’s handling of the case, which means the prosecutor – who must ultimately stand the test of public scrutiny – will be in no mood to be anything but uncompromising in pursuing the rights of the victims. Those two women, alleged victims of Assange, are Swedes after all. And there no real obstacles to at least questioning Assange – extradition from Britain to a fellow EU country is not a long and costly process for the Swedish authorities. And never underestimate a lawyer’s sense of the risks of setting a precedent: what does it mean for the next time they need to get at someone if the Swedes ignore the opportunities of transnational law enforcement in this case?
So, yes, the prosecutor is probably feeling political pressure to get their man, but it is coming from Sweden not the U.S. The fact that Assange is well known is probably working against him in Sweden, and the innuendo about conspiracies and “honey traps” coming from Assange and his backers will, I suspect, give him and his legal team less wiggle room, not more. There has been no serious suggestion – let alone evidence – of a law enforcement or intelligence conspiracy to put him behind bars in Sweden (he would have been unlikely to actually serve time for the specific charges he faces, as Sweden prefers community service, although since he left the country that could change). “The co-ordinator of the WikiLeaks group in Stockholm, who is a close colleague of Assange and who also knows both women,told The Guardian: “This is a normal police investigation. Let the police find out what actually happened. Of course, the enemies of WikiLeaks may try to use this, but it begins with the two women and Julian. It is not the CIA sending a woman in a short skirt.”
Meanwhile, the whole Assange case in the U.K. and Sweden has completely overshadowed the fate of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning who remains in detention in the U.S. The New York Times reports rumors that U.S. authorities are trying to turn Manning to testify against Assange but that Manning is refusing to cooperate. Let’s hope he is continues to be so strong. Supporters have mounted a campaign and are passing the hat to pay his legal costs, and to his credit, have received support from Michael Moore.
For those interested in intelligent comment on the Wikileaks phenomenon read the Twelve Theses on Wikileaks” by Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens . For straightforward and basic grounding in Wikileaks history, including interviews with most of the main cast of characters (and a light treatment of the inside story on the splits in Wikileaks), have a look at this Swedish (no less!) Television documentary released this week.