The Laws of Rule


Law, Politics, Podcasts


Assange: Is the Swedish Case Political?

Feb 1, 2012

Wikirebels documentary The short answer is “Yes. It could not be otherwise.” But not in the way Julian Assange would like you to think.

The media tends to report that the demand for extradition to Sweden arose after Wikileaks dropped a large load of diplomatic cables on 28 November 2010. The implication, encouraged from the start by Assange and certain supporters, is that Swedish arrest warrant is evidence of a plot against Assange and Wikileaks.

In fact, the Swedish demand to interview Assange dates back to August 2010, in connection with a demand by two women that Assange take an HIV test. The warrant requiring Assange be detained for questioning on charges of sexual molestation was made soon after and was confirmed on 18 November, after working its way through the Swedish justice system on appeal, first by the alleged victims and then by lawyers for Assange (a well-sourced summary of the charges and timeline is available here).

Coincidence? Is it possible that the two events – the warrant and the November 2010 Cablegate drop – are somehow linked? Impossible to tell, although the fact that Assange dropped the largest number of the diplomatic cables up to that point only four days after losing his appeal at the district court level in Sweden does seem suspicious. But maybe that, too, was a result of a process independent of the courts in Sweden.

Don’t get me wrong. There is every reason to be worried about attempts by US prosecutors to build a case against Assange. There is lots of evidence that the US authorities are going after Assange with a vengeance, pressuring his alleged co-conspirator Bradley Manning, and attempting to find the alleged digital footprints that link the two. But there has been no serious suggestion – let alone evidence – of a law enforcement or intelligence conspiracy to get him to Sweden and from their into prison or to the US (Assange 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; extradition to the US is a very real threat, but for that authorities need a charge. More on that below).

Seen from the perspective of a Swedish 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. No prosecutor worth his or her salt will give Julian Assange a get-out-of-jail-free card just because the suspect is who he is. The same would apply to a rock star. In fact, the celebrity status of the alleged perpetrator simply heightens the stakes for any prosecutor, who must ultimately stand the test of public (and political) scrutiny. The Swedish prosecutor will not be anything but uncompromising in pursuing the rights of the victims. The two women, alleged victims of Assange, are Swedish citizens after all.

And never underestimate a lawyer’s sense of the risks of setting a precedent: what does it mean for the next time Sweden needs to get at someone if they ignore or bend the procedures of extradition in this case? No. Standard prosecutorial logic points to a by-the-book approach to this one.

So, is the Swedish case political? It would be impossible for such a high profile case not to be. 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. The prosecutor is no doubt feeling pressure to get her suspect into the interview room but, regardless of the suspicions of his high profile supporters, that pressure is coming from Sweden not the U.S. The co-ordinator of the WikiLeaks group in Stockholm, who is a close (now former?) 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 has overshadowed the fate of alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning who remains in detention in the U.S.

Julian Assange should not be prosecuted for defending the rights of whistleblowers or even, I would argue, for trying to make whistleblowing safer through technology. But the Assange saga has completely obliterated the legal fact that he isn’t being prosecuted for either of those acts.

For the whistleblower movement the Assange saga has had the even worse effect of obscuring the reality that, at every step since August 2010, Assange’s behaviour has posed a risk to that movement. Assange has failed to distinguish between his own fate and the fate of the movement and that failure (so typical of male activists as to be a cliché) has brought us to the point at which the criminalization of whistleblowing and all who support it is very, very close at hand.

The sheer lack of political sophistication and utter irresponsibility shown by Assange is mind-numbing.

And that conclusion forces me to ask the only question that really matters: if the American prosecution of Assange has any hope of succeeding, it will have to show evidence of conspiracy and, due to the nature of the case so far, that evidence will have to be digital. And if they have that evidence, what will remain of Assange’s promise to all the potential Bradley Mannings out there of a safe, secure way to expose abuses of power?


PS For those interested in an excellent analysis of Assange’s argument today before the UK Supreme Court, have a look at Head of Legal’s blog post

PPS 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.