WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s bizarre bid for political asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London has claimed headlines everywhere. However, it has also obscured an important truth: Last month’s decision by the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court that Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual crimes was the only possible decision that the court could have taken. The alternative – to reject the European Arrest Warrant issued by Swedish authorities – would have signaled distrust of Sweden’s legal system, which would have been unfair.
Whatever one’s sentiments about Assange and the claims that he has made in trying to secure asylum in Ecuador, let us be very clear: Sweden is a Rechtstaat – a state governed by the rule of law – in every sense. The Swedish court system is characterized by predictability, fairness, humanism and high professional quality. These are facts.
Yet this description fits poorly with the image of the Swedish legal system that has dominated the public debate since the allegations against Assange, namely that he raped or sexually assaulted two different women, became public. Indeed, Assange and his supporters have portrayed Sweden’s legal system as a wilderness of injustice and of political corruption.
This caricature has become a problem for Sweden. When influential people – for instance the filmmaker Michael Moore, the American feminist Naomi Wolf, the British journalist John Pilger and many others – launch attacks on the Swedish legal system, it affects the country’s democratic reputation. And, unfortunately, the caricature has been allowed to dominate impressions of Sweden, because representatives of its legal system and other Swedish experts have failed to provide a more accurate picture of reality.
When I travel abroad and meet lawyers interested in the Assange case (and they are many), I get asked the most incredible questions about Sweden’s legal system. Is it true that men are convicted of rape in Sweden on the sole basis of a woman’s allegations? Is it rape in Sweden when a condom breaks? Is it correct that Swedish judges contact the United States Justice Department before passing judgment in what are considered politically sensitive cases?
The list goes on. Did the Swedish prosecutor-general meet with representatives of the U.S. Embassy before the European Arrest Warrant in the Assange case was issued? Are Swedish judges selected by political appointment? Is it true that official Sweden is steeped in feminist ideology, and that Swedish public servants are taught that women never lie? Will the Swedish police put Assange on a plane to Guantanamo Bay as soon as he arrives in Stockholm?
The answer to all of these questions is “no,” though a couple of them point to half-truths. Let me return to these later on. Before doing so, however, let us recall what actually happened in the Assange case.
Assange came to Sweden in 2010 as a spokesperson for WikiLeaks. Ironically, one of the reasons for his visit was Sweden’s good legal reputation. Assange came to investigate whether WikiLeaks could benefit from the unique protection afforded to sources of information under the country’s constitutional free-speech guarantees.
During Assange’s stay, two events occurred that led to accusations against him for sexual assault against two women. Before Assange was interrogated, he left the country. He then refused to return to Sweden, starting an almost two-year process to extradite him.
The British Supreme Court’s decision means only that Assange will be transferred to Sweden for interrogation. It does not mean that he will be tried, or even charged. It is entirely possible that he will be transferred to Sweden, questioned, and released if the Swedish authorities find that there are insufficient grounds for his prosecution. It is impossible – and that is the way that it should be – to predict how the case will unfold.
What we do know is that Assange will receive fair treatment by Swedish legal institutions. And, yes, their respect for the rule of law extends to accusations of sexual offenses. As recently as a few years ago, the Swedish Supreme Court explicitly ruled that the same high standard of proof applied to other criminal allegations are to be applied in cases of suspected rape.
Similar criticisms of the Swedish legal system are based largely on myths and misconceptions. The framework of Sweden’s criminal law with respect to sexual offenses is no different than that in most other countries. I will not be sentenced for rape if my condom breaks during a sexual act. But like in many other countries, I can be convicted of rape if I have sex with a sleeping or unconscious person, which is one of the accusations that has been leveled against Assange.
The Swedish judges who may preside if Assange is brought to trial will not take orders from any government agencies, and they will not be influenced by pressure from outside. Corruption in the Swedish judiciary is extremely low. We do have politically appointed laypersons as judges (similar to jurors) – a system about which I am critical – but they do not act as politicians in their judicial function. In fact studies suggest that their political beliefs do not influence their judgments at all.
Finally, no, the Swedish police will not place Assange on a CIA-chartered plane as soon as he arrived at Stockholm airport. They, like all other authorities in Sweden, will discharge their duties according to the law.
Marten Schultz is a professor of law at Stockholm University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).