Sex, Leaks, and Swedish Law

STOCKHOLM – Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in order to protect him from extradition to Sweden, has raised difficult questions, particularly for the United Kingdom, on whose territory the Ecuadoran embassy, where Assange remains, is located. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague has been clear: “It is important to understand that this is not about Mr. Assange’s activities at WikiLeaks or the attitude of the United States of America. [Assange] is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offenses.”

But the allegations against 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, Swedish authorities’ extradition request has nothing to do with Assange’s involvement in WikiLeaks.

Before Assange began to use WikiLeaks to divert attention from his personal legal problems, Swedish public opinion toward the whistleblowing Web site was favorable. Indeed, it could be said that WikiLeaks was revered in Sweden’s media.

When Assange visited Sweden in 2010 – presumably drawn by the country’s reputation as a world leader in defending freedom of speech – events occurred between Assange and two female WikiLeaks volunteers of which only they have full knowledge. Outsiders know only that one of the women’s allegations that Assange had non-consensual sex with her while she slept could be characterized 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 face trial. Accordingly, after Assange decided not to cooperate 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 Assange’s legal strategy, the two are now forever intertwined.

Assange and his supporters claim that 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 issued. And it is impossible to know whether Sweden would heed such a request. (Sweden would never extradite someone who faces the death penalty, for example.)

Moreover, the EAW’s structure does not allow for Sweden to extradite Assange to the US without the UK’s approval. Indeed, such a decision would be in the hands of the British authorities – just as 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 currently 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 Hague’s words, “a country with the highest standards of law… where [Assange’s] rights are guaranteed.” Perhaps more tellingly, the World Justice Organization’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 even make it onto the list.