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WIKILEAKS CONTROVERSY

LONDON

Assange right to slam Swedish courts: lawyers

Nearly one third of lawyers in Sweden, including best-selling author and lawyer Jens Lapidus, believe that criticism directed at the country's legal system by WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange is warranted, according to a new survey.

Assange right to slam Swedish courts: lawyers

“He is partially right about the Swedish legal system,” writes Lapidus, a defence attorney and author of the best selling 2006 crime novel “Snabba Cash” (‘Easy Money’), along with prominent defence lawyer Johan Åkermark, in an article published on Thursday in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.

The authors reference a study published in Legally Yours, a trade publication for the legal profession in Sweden, which surveyed 9,000 lawyers.

The survey, known as the Juristbarometern, revealed that 31.9 percent of lawyers answered yes when asked if they agreed with Assange’s criticism of the Swedish legal system.

According to Lapidus and Åkermark, both of whom are partners in the same law firm as Assange’s Swedish attorney Björn Hurtig, the WikiLeaks’ founder is justified in taking issue with several aspects of the Swedish criminal justice system.

Writing in DN, the two lawyers explain that Assange is warranted in questioning Sweden’s rules on remanding suspects in custody, which often prevent defence attorneys from having a chance to review material used as the basis for remand decisions until minutes before prosecutors present the evidence to a judge.

“We’re of the opinion that remand in Sweden is used in a way that many other states governed by the rule of law would find unfamiliar,” they write.

Speaking to Legally Yours, Hurtig said the statistics cited by Lapidus and Åkermark show that “mistrust of our legal system is greater than many believe”.

“The system is built up so that, in principal, the suspect doesn’t have any insight into the preliminary investigation,” he said.

In addition, Lapidus and Åkermark share Assange’s concerns about having lay judges, many of whom are retired politicians rather than trained legal professionals, preside over trials in Swedish courtrooms.

Also problematic for Assange is the possibility that, were he ever to face trial in Sweden, it would likely be held behind closed doors, a common practices when it comes to sex crime cases in Sweden.

While Lapidus and Åkermark admitted they didn’t have any statistics on closed-door trials, “our impression is that proceedings are held behind closed doors more often in Sweden in many other states governed by the rule of law”.

The authors are quick to point out, however that “Sweden has is a well functioning state based on the rule of law and in many respects is a model internationally”.

Lapidus and Åkermark emphasise that, while they “don’t care specifically about Julian Assange” or the question of his innocence or guilt, they feel a responsibility to “remove the stains that exist in our system” which Assange’s criticism has highlighted.

In February, a London court ruled that Assange could be extradited to Sweden to face questioning over sex crimes allegations stemming an August 2010 visit to Sweden by the WikiLeaks founder.

Assange’s lawyers appealed the ruling in early March and his appeal is scheduled to be heard on July 12th.

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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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