In a trendy suburb of central Stockholm, young hipsters with thick framed spectacles point to the apartment where Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, allegedly spent an ill-fated week in August 2010. It is the home of one of the women at the center of a diplomatic scandal taking in the unlikely international triumvirate of Britain, Ecuador and Sweden. It is one of the worst kept secrets in Stockholm.
During a speaking trip to the city, Assange allegedly had a dalliance with the woman — a Wikileaks fan, eager for the rockstar journalist to stay in her apartment during his spell in her country. According to extradition papers filed with British courts, Assange had sex with her in her home, then reportedly went on to have sex with a second woman a few days later. Between them, the pair have accused him of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation, and rape.
With established Swedish media reserve, the women have not been named, though everyone in this Stockholm suburb knows the woman from up the street, and are keen that justice be done. For the residents and commentariat of Stockholm — as natural a Wikileaks hinterland as anywhere in the world — that means making sure Assange comes back to Sweden to be questioned by prosecutors about his alleged offenses.
Assange has publicly said that his appearance in Sweden would precipitate extradition to the U.S. on charges relating to his publication of leaked cables, to face life imprisonment or even the death penalty. He has accepted political asylum from Ecuador and is now holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
For prickly Swedes, the notion of having to seek such protection from political persecution in Sweden, is like avoiding sharks by jumping in the sea. “It’s totally unacceptable,” says Frank Belfrage, Swedish deputy foreign Minister. The case is about the sexual offenses alleged in Sweden, nothing to do with the U.S., which has anyway not issued any extradition request, he says.
“This case has nothing to do with Wikileaks. It is about two women,” emphasizes Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer representing the pair. Assange’s Ecuadorean adventure is an “absurd abuse” of the asylum system, which piles insult onto the “tragedy” which has been their life for the last two years, he says. The pair have been the subject of innuendo and abuse from Assange supporters and apologists who accuse the women of being part of a U.S.-set-up or of inflating an innocent encounter into non-existent abuse.
Swedes are keen not to pre-judge the case, but the affair has forced the country to take a look again at its laws on sexual offenses — particularly rape. According to the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, Sweden has 53 rapes per 100,000 population — easily the highest number of reported rapes anywhere in Europe. The statistics paint less a picture of predatory Swedish men, and more one of female empowerment and destigmatisatisation of victimhood.
The number of convictions trebled after 2005, when the government widened the threshold for a sexual offense to be considered rape, by lowering the amount of coercion which needs to be involved. Wherever the accusations against Assange fall within the spectrum, Swedish authorities are still unconvinced that the laws are tight enough, and are discussing an amendment which would lower the threshold again. Veteran feminist journalist, Helene Bergman, says the proposals are madness. “Already since 2005, it has been far too easy in Sweden for something to be considered rape,” she says.
Assange’s lawyer Per Samuelsson agrees with the need to think again about Swedish statutes. But he says his client has not committed any sexual offenses even within the range of the laws as they stand. “He has no fear of facing questions about two women,” says Samuelsson, and would happily face an interrogation from the prosecutor, Marianne Ny, provided she came to do it in London.
“It would not be unusual for a prosecutor to travel overseas,” says Bergman “They do it for offenses all the way up to murder.” In an article co-written with fellow journalist, Anders Carlstrom, for Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, Bergman broke ranks with the vast majority of the Swedish media to claim Ny was sullying the whole Swedish judicial process with her refusal to conduct her interviews in London — accusing the prosecutor of orchestrating a witch hunt against the Wikileaks boss.
Ny has thus far remained unmoved, with officials inside the prosecutors’ office asking how they could have any faith that Assange would return to Sweden if the questions ended up producing an indictment.
Samuelsson says the Wikileaks boss would be on the next plane back to Sweden if he had watertight assurances he would not then be extradited to the U.S.: Assange’s legal team will wait for a guarantee from the Swedish government before deciding whether or not to head to Stockholm for questioning, he says.
To Swedes, that demand looks rather a lot like Sweden, the country, being pushed around by Julian Assange, the journalist. And anyway, says Belfarge, the government is in no position to offer assurances, which — in the hypothetical scenario of a U.S. extradition request — would be in the hands of the courts, anyway.
With the threat receding of Britain breaking diplomatic ties with the Ecuadorean government and storming the embassy, but still committed to arresting the Australian and deporting him to Sweden as soon as he tries to leave, the farcical impasse shows no sign of easing. Assange might as well make himself comfortable. “Yes,”says Samuelsson. “He’ll stay as long as he has to.”