Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 14 May 2019
Almost nine years ago, a Swedish woman went to the police alleging rape. In the normal course of things, the investigation would have been concluded years ago, ending in a trial or a decision not to prosecute. Instead, the case is still unresolved, although the Swedish authorities have just announced that they are reopening the investigation into the man she accused, Julian Assange.
They have done so after a request from the complainant, who has behaved with dignity throughout this lengthy saga. Her chance to have the case reopened came when the British government decided to remove the founder of WikiLeaks from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been living since 2012 after losing a court battle to avoid extradition from the UK to Sweden. It’s worth recalling at this point that Assange lost his challenge to a European arrest warrant in the Supreme Court, which decided it had been lawfully issued.
Faced with having to go back to Stockholm for questioning about the rape allegation and sexual accusations involving a second woman, Assange decided to become a fugitive from justice. The statute of limitations on the lesser accusations ran out in 2015 and the Swedish authorities dropped the rape investigation a couple of years later, solely because they couldn’t proceed while Assange was holed up in the embassy. He is currently serving a 50-week sentence in Belmarsh high-security prison in south London for violating his bail conditions.
It always seemed ironic, to say the least, that this self-appointed campaigner against injustice was so reluctant to comply with the justice process when it threatened to hold his own alleged behaviour to account. His supporters have tried to claim that a vast conspiracy is under way, aimed at dragging him back to Stockholm and facilitating his extradition to the US on charges of releasing thousands of American military and diplomatic documents. Some of his more excitable fans even raised the spectre of the death penalty, suggesting that Assange was in hiding to avoid being whisked from Stockholm to Washington, where he would be tried and sentenced to death.
This was always nonsense on stilts, not least because it is actually easier to extradite defendants to the US from the UK than it is from Sweden. The British government’s extradition treaty with the US has long been criticised as one-sided, something repeatedly highlighted by lawyers acting on behalf of other defendants faced with being sent from this country to the US.
The truth about the Swedish case has been demonstrated today. Rather than facilitating Assange’s extradition to the US, the reopening of the rape investigation may actually impede it, depending on whether the British authorities decide to give priority to the Swedish extradition request over another (and much more recent) one from the US. The America authorities want Assange to face allegations of conspiring with a former intelligence analyst, Chelsea Manning, to download classified databases. Far from carrying the death penalty, the charge has a maximum prison sentence of five years – two less than he’s already spent, by his own choice, in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Even in the paranoid world inhabited by some of his supporters, it should be obvious that if Swedish prosecutors really were embroiled in a dark plot to get him deported to Washington, all they had to do at this point was sit back – and allow the US extradition request to go ahead in the British courts.
Instead, they’ve thrown a spanner in the works. The reopening of the investigation doesn’t mean that Assange will be charged with rape, but it does mean that he will be subject to the same investigation process as anyone else accused of committing a crime in Sweden. It has been welcomed by the victim’s lawyer, Elisabeth Massi Fritz, who told a news conference that her client ‘is very hopeful about getting restitution’.
The reopening of the rape investigation is actually an assertion of the old principle that no one, no matter how famous, is above the law. There is no special dispensation for celebrities and everyone, including a Swedish feminist, is entitled to have her allegations investigated by the prosecuting authorities. Let’s not forget that the whole thing could have been done and dusted years ago, if Assange hadn’t decided to frustrate the law. Whatever happens next, he is the sole author of his present predicament.