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Nov 30, 2015

The strange case of Julian Assange

It's become clear that the Swedish and UK governments will do virtually anything to ensure the investigation of Julian Assange never proceeds.

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Julian Assange faces very serious allegations, politicians like to say. That was the description from UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s office three years ago, defending the UK’s determination to extradite him to Sweden. And that was the description early this year from then-UK deputy PM Nick Clegg, too — “he should go to Sweden to face very serious allegations and charges of rape,” said Clegg, not long before leading his party to annihilation in this year’s general election. Clegg, of course, was peddling the oft-repeated lie that there are charges against Assange.

But for very serious allegations – sexual molestation, unlawful coercion, sexual assault — the UK and Swedish governments have displayed zero interest in investigating them. In fact, the history of the case against Assange is a history of increasingly bizarre efforts by authorities to avoid questioning him.

When Swedish prosecutors first examined complaints about Assange by two women in 2010, the Chief Prosecutor of Stockholm dismissed all but one of the allegations, including the accusation of sexual assault, saying “there is no suspicion of any crime whatsoever”. After speaking to prosecutors, Assange remained in Sweden for another week to be interviewed about the one remaining allegation (of molestation). However, after an appeal by former Swedish politician Claes Borgstrom, another prosecutor, Marianne Ny, reopened the whole case. Assange remained in Sweden and offered to be interviewed again, but, in the first of what would turn out to be a long litany of excuses, was told Ny was unable to speak to him because one of her staff was ill. Ny’s office then told Assange’s lawyer he was free to leave Sweden, but once Assange did so, an arrest warrant was issued for him. Assange then offered to return to Sweden to speak to Ny and gave her a full week of dates in which he would do so. These were all rejected.

This was all despite Swedish police having access to the texts of one of the alleged victims of Assange saying she “did not want to put any charges on JA but that the police were keen on getting a grip on him”, that she was shocked when he was arrested given she only wanted him to take an STD test, and that “it was the police who made up the charges”.

Ny’s unwillingnness to interview Assange would become the pattern for the next five years: Assange repeatedly offered to speak to Swedish authorities by phone, by videolink, or in person at the Australian embassy. The Swedes refused all opportunities to do so and demanded Assange return to Sweden, issuing a European arrest warrant for him. Eventually the EAW would be upheld by British courts under UK laws, which since then have been amended. Under current British law, a similar case to Assange’s would now be successfully appealed and the EAW rejected.

Once he had sought refuge in the Ecaudorean embassy in 2012, Assange continued to offer Swedish authorities the opportunity to speak with him, and they continued to reject them. But while they regularly rejected Assange’s offer to be interviewed, other suspects were treated very differently: during the last five years, the Swedes have on 44 occasions asked to travel to the UK to interview, or asked British police to interview, other people in Britain in relation to allegations including violent crime, fraud and even murder. Assange, however, couldn’t be treated the same way — he had to go to Sweden.

In fact, so absurd was Ny’s refusal to question Assange that in November last year, a Swedish court found she had breached her duty in failing to progress the case. With Assange’s Swedish arrest warrant in danger of being quashed due to her inaction and the expiry of three elements of the investigation looming due to Sweden’s statute of limitations, Ny then performed a sudden about-face — she said she would question Assange in the Ecuadorean embassy, as requested by Assange and Ecuador for years, and contacted UK authorities about the process for doing so.

But Ny still had a card left to play: despite her saying in March that she would do so, she never contacted the Ecuadoreans about the interview — in fact, eventually she admitted that she hadn’t bothered contacting the Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry in Quito until “a late stage” — just five days before a scheduled interview with Assange in June. When the Ecuadoreans said they wanted diplomatic staff present during the interview given the country had given him refuge, the Swedes called the interview off and blamed the Ecuadoreans for failing to co-operate. Ny had managed to avoid yet another interview opportunity.

The refusal of the Swedes to interview Assange seems to give credence to Assange’s fears the Swedes’ priority is to get him in custody not so the now one remaining allegation of sexual assault can be progressed, but so he can be extradited to the United States under the investigation into WikiLeaks’ role in the release of Chelsea Manning cables. We learnt in March that this US investigation is still on foot, despite Manning now being in the third year of her sentence.

But if that seems like a conspiracy theory, it gets better: in October, it was revealed via freedom of information laws that UK prosecutors had urged Ny not to interview Assange in the UK, even before he sought refuge with the Ecuadoreans. “I suggest you interview him only on surrender to Sweden,” prosecutor Paul Close told Ny in 2011. He was concerned that the interview might suggest Assange was innocent.

So despite the serious allegations the UK government said Assange faced, its prosecutors didn’t want him interviewed by the Swedes about them.

Meantime, the Australian government had said nothing. Julie Bishop was happy to use Assange to criticise the Gillard government but since becoming Foreign Minister has barely mentioned him.

If the plan was to use a sexual assault allegation — one prosecutors refused to investigate, one described by one of alleged victims as invented by police — to nullify WikiLeaks even if Assange avoided being extradited to the United States, it’s only partly worked. This year WikiLeaks has had its best year since 2010, releasing, inter alia, repeated iterations of chapters from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast accumulation of diplomatic cables from the monstrous Saudi Arabian regime, emails from CIA director John Brennan’s unauthorised personal email account, more revelations about National Security Agency surveillance targets, the text of the secret Trade In Services Agreement draft and details of the NSA’s massive spying on French presidents, which infuriated the government of Francois Hollande.

Even so, Assange remains confined on the basis of very serious allegations, with the Swedish and UK governments apparently keen to ensure they are never properly investigated, while his own government would prefer that Australians forget about him entirely.

Correction: the article originated stated that in 2010, Marianne Ny declined a request from Julian Assange to be interviewed while he was still in Sweden because she was ill; in fact, it was because one of her staff was ill. The article has been corrected and a link to the source added.

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