Sweden accused of human rights hypocrisy

The Swedish government has come under fire from international watchdog Human Rights Watch for its handling of the cases of two men deported from Sweden to Egypt by the CIA in 2001. There is evidence that the Egyptians, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammad al-Zari, were tortured, despite assurances given by Egypt to Sweden that the pair would not be subjected to inhumane treatment.

Julia Hall, counsel and senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, has criticised Sweden for taking at face value Egyptian assurances that the men would not be subjected to torture. Speaking to The Local during a visit to Sweden, she pointed to a decision by the British government not to deport a suspect to Egypt because he would have been at risk of mistreatment.

“I have asked Swedish government officials on many occasions how they could believe Egyptian assurances, and their response has always been ‘no comment’,” she says.

The issue now threatens to cloud Sweden’s reputation as a champion of human rights. Swedish ministers frequently speak out against abuses in other countries; Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds delivered a speech in December last year entitled ‘Security and the Rule of Law’. Hall called Freivalds’ attempts to speak with authority on human rights “deeply hypocritical” when the government has not dealt with alleged violations on its own soil.

The criticism has some resonance with government supporters. Berndt Ekström, a Social Democrat member of the foreign affairs committee of the Swedish parliament, agrees that the case “is damaging for Sweden in the short term, particularly in the eyes of international organizations”. He does not believe, however, that the country’s reputation will suffer in the long term.

Ekström adds that the government “did what it thought was correct at the time”, but says that ministers should have reacted to the criticism more quickly and firmly than they did. Ekström also argues that the focus should remain on the actions of Säpo, rather than the conduct of politicians.

Agiza and a-Zari were arrested by Säpo agents and taken to Bromma Airport, where it is reported that they were taken by masked American agents, who tied their hands and feet, stripped them naked and drugged them.

Justice Ombudsman Mats Mellin severely reprimanded Säpo last month, after investigating the role its agents played in the case. He stopped short, however, of calling for Säpo agents to face trial, saying that the reprimand would have the desired effect.

Yet the reprimand has failed to silence critics: Hall describes the decision not to bring prosecutions as “a real disappointment”, She says that the ombudsman’s report makes it clear that security agents acted illegally.

“There has been no accountability; either in Sweden or elsewhere,” she says.

Human Rights Watch is calling for Sweden to submit to an investigation of its conduct by the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sweden has previously said that it is willing to cooperate with such an investigation, but has made this conditional upon the cooperation of the American and Egyptian governments.