ECUADOR’S decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in order to protect him from extradition to Sweden, in its London embassy has raised difficult questions for the United Kingdom.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague has been clear: “It is important to understand this is not about Mr Assange’s activities at WikiLeaks or the attitude of the United States of America. [He] is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offences.”
But the allegations against Mr Assange – the rape, sexual molestation, and unlawful coercion of two women – seem to have been forgotten by most people, including Ecuador’s government. In fact, Sweden’s extradition request has nothing to do with Mr Assange’s involvement in WikiLeaks.
Before Mr Assange began to use WikiLeaks to divert attention from his personal legal problems, Swedish public opinion towards the whistleblowing website was favourable. Indeed, it could be said that WikiLeaks was revered by Sweden’s media.
When Mr Assange visited Sweden in 2010 – presumably drawn by its reputation as a world leader in defending freedom of speech – events occurred between Mr Assange and two female WikiLeaks volunteers of which only they have full knowledge. Outsiders know only that one of the women’s allegations that Mr Assange had non-consensual sex with her while she slept could be characterised as rape under Swedish criminal law – as in most advanced countries. These allegations must, therefore, be taken seriously.
Since European Arrest Warrants were implemented in 2001, Sweden has used them regularly to bring alleged rapists to trial. Accordingly, after Mr Assange decided not to co-operate fully with the Swedish authorities, an EAW was issued. Whether the allegations against him are true is irrelevant, as is his involvement in WikiLeaks. Yet, given Mr Assange’s legal strategy, the two are now forever intertwined.
Mr Assange and his supporters claim the Swedish case is merely an opening for the US to force him to stand trial for his work with WikiLeaks. But, while no-one can definitively say that he would not ultimately have to stand trial in the US, no formal extradition request has been made. And it is impossible to know whether Sweden would heed such a request. (It would never extradite someone who faces the death penalty.)
Moreover, the EAW’s structure does not allow for Sweden to extradite Mr Assange to the US without UK approval. Indeed, such a decision would be in the hands of the British authorities – just as Mr Assange’s fate has been since he fled to London in 2010.
Sweden’s legal system is sound, fair, and just. But no legal system is perfect. Sweden is working to strengthen its legal system further, following reliable allegations that Sweden’s best-known serial killer might not be a killer at all, but merely a liar.
Despite its legal system’s flaws, Sweden remains, in Mr Hague’s words, “a country with the highest standards of law… where [Assange’s] rights are guaranteed.”
Perhaps more tellingly, the World Justice Organisation’s Rule of Law Index places Sweden’s legal system among the world’s most robust, with the lowest levels of corruption and the most rigorous protection of fundamental rights. Ecuador does not make it on to the list.
• Marten Schultz is professor of law at Stockholm University.