Wikileaks founder Julian Assange faces a renewed threat of extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. When he was removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in London – where he had been granted refuge for seven years – he potentially faced several outstanding criminal charges. Extradition to the United States for his participation in the Chelsea Manning intelligence leaks remains a possibility, and on May 1 Assange was sentenced to 50 weeks in a U.K. prison for skipping bail related to Swedish rape charges. Now Sweden, which essentially had given up its pursuit of Assange during his asylum in the embassy, has renewed its efforts to bring him to justice.
“I have today taken the decision to reopen the preliminary investigation,” announced Swedish Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Eva-Marie Persson on May 13. “As Mr. Assange is currently incarcerated in the United Kingdom, the circumstances now allow for extradition to Sweden on the basis of the European arrest warrant.”
Extradition to the U.S. or Sweden?
The Swedish investigation may throw a wrench in the works for the Trump administration’s efforts to bring Assange to the United States, where he faces far more severe charges that are less likely to go away. Persson admitted that her inquiry might conflict with the U.S. request but said that a decision on who should be handed Assange would be up to Britain. “I am well aware of the fact that an extradition process is ongoing in the U.K. and that he could be extradited to the U.S. In the event of a conflict between a European Arrest Warrant and a request for extradition from the U.S., U.K. authorities will decide on the order of priority,” she said a statement.
One can imagine that positive relations with the United States are far more important to Britain than those with Sweden, despite recent strain during Trump’s tenure. It has been suggested that Assange’s home country Australia has been reluctant to assist its own citizen for fear of drawing U.S. wrath. On the other hand, the Europhile British government may be reluctant to ignore a European arrest warrant, which allows one member of the European Union to request the transfer of criminal suspects from another member state. And while the United States may want its own shot at Assange, some suspect that this is little more than a coordinated attempt to silence a man who threatens to expose state secrets and misdeeds that various governments would prefer to remain out of the public eye. If an agreement were made between Washington and Stockholm, jail time for Assange in Sweden could benefit the United States, giving it plenty of time and precise details to plan and prepare for its own apprehension and trial.
Assange was so reluctant to face extradition from the U.K. to Sweden in the first place because he believed that Sweden would be sure to hand him over to the U.S., where he could face the death penalty. Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson believes that is the endgame for the reopened inquiry. “It is very difficult to see that he has an opportunity to a fair trial in Sweden, in the U.K. or in the United States especially, because that exactly is what this all pertains to – an onward extradition to the United States to face trial for publishing the truth,” he told Russian outlet RT.
While many would say the sexual assault charges pale in comparison to those Assange faces in the U.S., it would not do to minimize the alleged rape of two women. In 2010, two women claimed that during a trip to Sweden Assange had engaged without their assent in unprotected intercourse. An investigation was started and dropped shortly thereafter, with Assange claiming that the encounters were consensual. In November 2010, another investigation was opened, and a European arrest warrant issued – which led to Assange’s original flight to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The extradition order from the U.K. to Sweden was upheld, but as Assange was safely ensconced on Ecuadorian soil, the second inquiry was abandoned. While some of the charges have passed the statute of limitations, one charge of sexual assault is open until 2020. Elisabeth Massi Fritz, lawyer for an Assange accuser, told reporters that the decision to open a third installment of the inquiry was “positive and gratifying news,” adding that “my client feels great gratitude and she is very hopeful about getting restitution, and we both hope that justice will win.”
But did any assault in fact occur? LN’s Legal Affairs editor Scott D. Cosenza recently described the allegations made by the two women:
“Julian Assange met and bedded two women in a weekend. They both found out about the other, and they were both not happy about the situation. After the fact, which is to say, after their sexual dalliance, and then after he was done visiting with them after – so, it’s not like there was a sexual event and then a complaint of improper sex or rape or molestation, but no, they had an intimate affair and then afterward they had meals together and texted together and that kind of thing. But then, subsequent to that, the two women found out about each other and decided ex post facto that the initial encounter all of a sudden wasn’t consensual. And this is what they allege …. So, in Sweden, it’s hard to imagine how this kind of accusation is allowed to proceed forward. In the United States, it’s not rape unless consent is withdrawn prior to the act.”
Hrafnsson claims that “case has been mishandled throughout.” He said in a statement, “There has been considerable political pressure on Sweden to reopen their investigation, but there has always been political pressure surrounding this case.” Meanwhile, Fritz claims the opposite: that Assange has received special treatment due to his celebrity status. This decision “signals clearly and forcefully that the Swedish justice system will not allow itself to be influenced by either the media or political pressure,” she said.
Assange is either a hero or a villain, depending on who is commenting. Will the Wikileaks founder — truth-seeker or arch-disruptor — receive a fair trial? As the ducks begin to line up in a row facing him, it’s difficult to imagine that his future is anything but grim.
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