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Sunday 24 June 2012

Sweden could be safest option for paranoid Assange

Wikileaks founder now finds himself at the mercy of Ecuador, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

That weird Australian, Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, is holed up in Ecuador's London embassy. After coming to the end of the legal road in the UK, he faces extradition to Sweden, where he's wanted for questioning over alleged rape and sexual assault. His dwindling band of supporters seem to believe that -- as he claims -- these charges are trumped up and that once on Swedish soil he will be locked up and then extradited to the US.

There, because the authorities are angry that he published stolen classified documents, he will be unfairly tried for espionage and treason and then executed. Abandoned by his native Australia, what can he do to save his life but take refuge with a kindly country and appeal for political asylum?

Let's unpick that.

Assange was accused by two women he met in Stockholm of rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion. Each says that what started as consensual sex became non-consensual. After being interviewed in Sweden, he went to London and refused to return for further questioning, suggesting instead that the prosecutor speak to him at the Swedish embassy in London, at Scotland Yard or via a video link.

None of these options was acceptable to the Swedish authorities, who, in November 2010, issued an international arrest warrant. After a short period on remand, Assange was bailed.

Those who posted the £240,000 (€300,000) bail were left-wing director Ken Loach, journalist John Pilger and documentary-maker Michael Moore. There was also Philip Knightly, who writes on espionage and propaganda; Jemima Khan, mostly recently famous for her romantic relationship with Hugh Grant but a genuine campaigner for free speech; and Henry Vaughan Lockhart Smith, a former army officer, war cameraman and rightwing libertarian.

Assange's legal defence against extradition was that he was a victim of a "mismatch" between English and Swedish law on what constitutes a sex crime and that the Swedish prosecutor was biased against men.

This may have some truth in it, but anyone who knows anything knows Sweden is a feminist country and not a good place to go if what you enjoy is treating women badly.

It's difficult not to see unsavoury double standards from a man who told a group of international reporters who were concerned that Wikileaks had endangered sources: "Well, they're informants. So, if they get killed, they've got it coming to them. They deserve it."

Although Assange speaks of Sweden as if it were a police state, the World Justice Project puts it first of 66 assessed countries for fundamental rights, second for absence of corruption and third for limited government powers, so it's a bit unlikely that it's involved in framing him.

If the US wanted Assange extradited, its best bet would be its ally in war and peace, the UK, with which it has an extradition treaty. It wouldn't have much chance with Sweden, a neutral country, which has given asylum to deserters from the US army.

However, there are no indications that the US could or would try to extradite him.

The unfortunate Private Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst who passed the information to Wikileaks, may end up in jail for the rest of his life, but there have been no charges made against Assange. Quite simply, because the freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment, it's almost impossible to prosecute anyone in the US, whatever they publish.

This month, the White House is furious with the New York Times for revealing embarrassing and damaging information about covert activities, including drone killings, and there isn't a damn thing it can do about it.

The Australian Prime Minister has said tartly that -- far from being abandoned -- Assange has received more consular support than anyone in a similar position. But Assange's paranoia caused him to jump bail.

He chose Ecuador, it would seem, because he recently interviewed President Rafael Correa for Russia Today, a TV channel backed by the Kremlin, and they had made common cause about the wickedness of America.

Still, it's a rather eccentric choice, considering the World Press Freedom Index places Ecuador at 107 out of 179 countries, its record on free speech is worse than anywhere in the region apart from Cuba and its government routinely sues and imprisons journalists.

Having initially promised a quick decision, Correa now says that there's a need for much consultation. Assange is being accommodated in what is a very small embassy and police are outside, ready to arrest him should he stick his nose out.

Will his supporters lose their money? Will Ecuador surrender him to the UK authorities? If he's given asylum, will he be able to leave the country? He falls out with his friends regularly, so how long will peace reign in the embassy?

Who knows?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards