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JULIAN ASSANGE

Assange to be extradited to Sweden: UK court

A UK court has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to Sweden to face questioning over sex crimes allegations.

Assange to be extradited to Sweden: UK court

“I must order that Mr Assange be extradited to Sweden,” judge Howard Riddle said in a decision at Belmarsh Magistrates Court in southeast London, following an extradition hearing earlier this month.

Lawyers for the 39-year-old Australian, who was detained in Britain on a Swedish arrest warrant in December, said following the ruling they planned to file an appeal.

“We will be appealing,” his main lawyer Geoffrey Robertson told the court following the ruling.

In handing down his ruling, Judge Riddle told onlookers that the crimes Assange is alleged to have committed meet the criteria for extradition, according to Twitter feeds from numerous journalists inside the courtroom.

In rejecting much of the defence team’s claims, the judge also accused Assange’s Swedish lawyer, Björn Hurtig of being unreliable.

Judge Riddle also said he doubted that comments made by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt would compromise Assange’s ability to receive a fair trial in Sweden.

Speaking after the hearing Assange criticised the European system under which he was detained in December at Sweden’s request.

“It is a result of the European Arrest Warrant system run amok. There was no consideration during this entire process as to the merits of the allegations against me,” he told around 100 journalists from across the globe.

Assange has seven days to lodge a formal appeal. The judge gave him bail on the same conditions as before, namely that he should reside at a friend’s mansion in eastern England, wear an electronic ankle tag and observe a curfew.

Celebrity backers including socialite Jemima Khan and rights campaigner Bianca Jagger were also at the court along with around 100 journalists from around the world.

Former computer hacker Assange says the claims against him, made by two women he met during a seminar organised by the whistleblowing website in August last year, are politically motivated because of the work of WikiLeaks.

Assange rocked the world’s diplomatic institutions and infuriated Washington last year when WikiLeaks began releasing more than 250,000 secret diplomatic cables sent by US embassy staff.

It has also published sensitive data on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Judge Riddle threw out arguments by Assange’s legal team that the Swedish prosecutor had no power to issue a European arrest warrant and that the allegations did not amount to extradition offences.

“In this country that would amount to rape,” Riddle said about the allegation by one woman that Assange had unprotected sex with her while she was asleep.

He said that Assange’s Swedish lawyer Björn Hurtig made a “deliberate attempt to mislead the court” when he said that he had been unable to contact Assange to arrange an interview with Swedish prosecutors.

Riddle also dismissed arguments that Assange could not face a fair trial as some evidence would be held behind closed doors, and that it was possible he would be re-extradited to the United States where he could face the death penalty.

Riddle said that the arrest warrant was valid and said he had to uphold the “mutual respect and confidence this court has in our European counterparts.”

The judge also said it was “highly unlikely” that comments by Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt that Assange lacked respect for women’s rights would have an effect on the case.

Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the Swedish prosecutor, said only that they would “see if they appeal or not” before issuing a “very short statement” later.

His lawyer Mark Stephens criticised the “tick-box justice” of the warrant system, but added: “We still remain very optimistic about our opportunities on appeal.”

Claes Borgström, the lawyer for the two Swedish women at the centre of the claims, said it was “regrettable” that Assange was appealing but that he hoped the case would be over by summer.

“Assange must respect the principles that he has expressed about WikiLeaks and take responsibility,” he told the Swedish news agency TT.

Assange was arrested in Britain on December 7 on an international warrant issued by a Swedish prosecutor who wanted to question him over four separate allegations of sexual assault made by the two women.

He spent nine days in prison until he was released on bail in December and has since been staying at a friend’s country mansion in eastern England under strict conditions including that he obey a curfew, wear an electronic ankle tag and report to police daily.

The judge relaxed his conditions for Thursday’s hearing to allow him to spend the previous night at the Frontline media club in London.

Assange claimed his greatest fear was eventual extradition to the United States, where his lawyers argued he could be sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility or face the death penalty.

He recently said his site was “significantly influential” in the fall of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, an event he said “no doubt” sparked uprisings across the Middle East.

The United States said the case was solely a matter for Britain and Sweden.

“Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the US is not involved,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a Twitter message.

Assange has claimed his greatest fear was eventual extradition to the United States, where his lawyers argued he could be sent to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility or face the death penalty.

WikiLeaks last November began publishing around 250,000 US diplomatic cables. It has also leaked thousands of secret documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the government’s continued silence over his impending extradition to the US is indefensible, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

I have no personal fondness for Julian Assange. I cannot forgive him for not condemning the torrent of abuse and slander suffered by the two Swedish women who, in 2010, accused him of sexual assault. His treatment of them has been shameful. Assange has continued to protest his innocence and has not expressed any regret for what happened

But that was then and this is now. At stake is something much bigger than the fate of one man and two women. And the Swedish government bears a clear share of responsibility for the outcome. 

Sweden’s prosecutors dropped the sexual assault investigation against Assange in 2017. For more than three years, he has been held in a maximum security prison in London while he has fought extradition to the United States on espionage charges. In April, a British court finally approved the extradition and referred the matter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. 

Today (June 17), Patel gave the green light for extradition; Assange has 14 days to appeal. 

Extradition would be a colossal blow against media freedom. Journalists would fear to investigate US military and surveillance operations around the world. Assange himself faces a lifetime in jail for publishing classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including evidence of war crimes

Many Swedish free speech organisations recognise this. “The information obtained thanks to Julian Assange and Wikileaks is of great public interest. In a democracy, whistleblowers must be protected, not taken to court to become pawns in a political game,” says the Swedish Journalists’ Association. A large number of press freedom and human right organisations have echoed these words, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship, to name but a few.

“Should Assange be extradited to the US, it could have serious consequences for investigative journalism,” says the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders. “Through the indictment of Assange, the US is also sending a signal to all journalists who want to examine the actions of the US military and security services abroad, or US arms deals for that matter. This also applies to Swedish journalists.”

Last month, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on Patel not to extradite Assange, saying it would have “a chilling effect on media freedom”.  Anna Ardin, one of the women who brought the original accusations of sexual assault, describes the accusations against Assange for espionage as “helt galet” (completely crazy). 

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the continued silence from Rosenbad, the seat of government offices in Stockholm, is indefensible. 

For the seven years in which Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he said consistently and repeatedly that he was prepared to face justice in Sweden, but feared extradition to the United States and therefore required a guarantee that this would not happen. His treatment in the UK is proof that his fears were justified. 

As early as September 2012, The Local quoted Amnesty International on this matter: “If the Swedish authorities are able to confirm publicly that Assange will not eventually find himself on a plane to the USA if he submits himself to the authority of the Swedish courts then this will … it will break the current impasse and second it will mean the women who have levelled accusations of sexual assault are not denied justice.”

And yet, throughout, Sweden’s Ministry of Justice kept quiet. Instead, the Swedish Prosecution Authority stated repeatedly: “Every extradition case is to be judged on its own individual merits. For that reason the Swedish government cannot provide a guarantee in advance that Julian Assange would not be subject to further extradition to the USA.”

In 2016, a United Nations panel decided that Sweden had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It called on the Swedish authorities to end Assange’s “deprivation of liberty”, respect his freedom of movement and offer him compensation. Again, the government itself remained silent, although Sweden’s director-general for legal affairs said that it disagreed with the panel.

Freedom of speech is one of the four “fundamental laws” that make up the Swedish constitution. There can be no excuse now for Morgan Johansson, Justice Minister, not to speak out in defence of Assange’s role as a whistleblower and journalist. 

Imagine if Assange had revealed Russian war crimes in Ukraine and was being held in Moscow’s high security prison? Every Western leader would be up in arms. 

Assange’s wife Stella Moris has Swedish citizenship. Her life, and that of their two children, will be destroyed if her husband, their father, is sent to rot in a US jail.

At this point in time, when Sweden’s independence in global affairs is in doubt owing to pressure from Turkey over its application to join Nato, it is even more vital for the government to break its silence and help bring the persecution of Julian Assange to an end. 

David Crouch covered Julian Assange’s campaign in the Swedish courts for The Guardian newspaper and is among 1900 journalists to have signed a statement in his defence. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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