Hazel Press

On 20 November 2014, the Svea Court of Appeal ruled on Julian Assange's unsuccessful bid to overturn the Stockholm District Court's decision to uphold its November 2010 detention order. This order, and the later European Arrest Warrant (EAW) were issued by Gothenburg prosecutor Marianne Ny. Despite Gothenburg being some 480 km from Stockholm, prosecutor Ny had reopened the case (after Stockholm's chief prosecutor Eva Finné dismissed it, August 2010) at the request of the politician-lawyer Claes Borgström.

 

While it came as no surprise that the Appeal Court found in favour of the District Court, the ruling contained an unexpected warning to prosecutor Ny:

The road to the Supreme Court

The Court of Appeal notes, however, that the investigation into the suspected crimes has come to a halt and considers that the failure of the prosecutors to examine alternative avenues is not in line with their obligation – in the interests of everyone concerned – to move the preliminary investigation forward.

After a detention period of over 1,500 days, which will soon have cost the boroughs of London £10 million (or around £3.03 per household),  prosecutor Ny's refusal to question Assange has become conspicuous enough to be noticed by the court - which acted as a permission for the ever audacious press to finally, if only fleetingly, cover the issue. Ny's response to the appeal court ruling was to complain that her own “failure” to question Assange was a “complicated situation” that she “continuously considered”.

 

As the years pass and millions are wasted, and as Ny carefully considers “how the investigation should be moved forward”, events may finally be catching up with 2010. Before the appeal ruling, Ny's static approach was questioned. Hugo Swire, a UK Foreign Office minister, stated (October 2014) that: “If [the prosecutor] wished to travel here to question Mr Assange in the embassy in London, we would do absolutely everything to facilitate that. Indeed, we would actively welcome it.” Anne Ramberg, Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association, responded to Swire's comments stating “Many voices in Sweden take a view along the same lines [as the Foreign Office]. It is time for this long-standing matter to be brought to a fair and proportionate end.” In June 2014, the National Lawyers Guild joined fifty-eight other NGOs in submitting a report to the UNHRC Universal Periodic Review (UPR) detailing Sweden’s human rights and procedural violations in the Assange case. The UPR received two other joint submissions related to the so-called 'Assange affair'. An edited UPR summary of submissions states:

February 7, 2015

37. JS8 considered that the investigation initiated in 2010 against Mr. Assange was paralysed  because  the  Swedish  prosecutor  had  no  will  to  use  the  mechanisms  of international cooperation established in the law. JS6 reported that it was a routine practice for Swedish police or prosecutors to travel abroad to question suspects at the preliminary investigation phase. JS6 alleged that the failure of the prosecutor to question Mr. Assange in the Embassy of a third country in the capital of another third country, had dragged out his pre-trial investigation nearly four years in violation of provisions of the ICCPR and the ECHR.

In answering the above, as well as the appeal ruling, Ny claimed that it was not just a matter of questioning, Assange had to come to Sweden to submit DNA samples. However, DNA was taken (UK Supreme Court, Agreed Statement of Facts, Point 38) in December 2010. Ny also claimed, not for the first time, that “legal impediments” were preventing her from travelling to London, and that the EAW “could remain until statute of limitations takes effect”. However, many senior Swedish legal figures, including the Chairman of the Supreme Court, Stefan Lindskog, are of the opinion that: “It is possible that the prosecutor could travel to London and interrogate him there. I have no answer to the question why that hasn't happened.”

 

Interestingly, the Supreme Court is the detention order's next destination. At which point the “circus”, as Ramberg termed it, may finally be over.

 

A further issue (ignored by the lower courts) that the Supreme Court must address due to recent developments, relates to the US Justice Department's ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks. On 23 December 2014, three WikiLeaks staff members, Sarah Harrison, Joseph Farrell and Kristinn Hrafnsson, received notice from Google that all of their emails and metadata had been subject to search and seize warrants “for a matter pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia”.  The warrants (dated March 2012) stated that: “The person or property to be searched, described above, is believed to conceal evidence and instrumentalities of violations of U.S.C. §§ 371, 641, 793(d), 793(g), and 1030.”

 

The alleged U.S.C. violations and potential penalties are:

• Conspiracy (general): 18 U.S.C. § 371 - imprisonment up to 5 years

• The theft or conversion of property belonging to the United States government: 18 U.S.C. § 641 - imprisonment up to 10 years

• Espionage: 18 U.S.C. § 793(d) - imprisonment up to 10 years

• Conspiracy to commit espionage: 18 U.S.C. § 793(g) - imprisonment up to 10 years

• Violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: 18 U.S.C. § 1030 - imprisonment up to 10 years

The warrants are yet another clear indication of the US government's intent to move against WikiLeaks. Indeed, in a Washington Post article concerning Google's response to a letter sent by WikiLeaks' lawyers, an Eastern District of Virginia spokesman “declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation of WikiLeaks.”

 

In 2010, the likelihood of a federal grand-jury declining to indict a case involving a civilian was 0.0067%. With those odds, Assange cannot leave the protection of the Ecuadorean embassy without guarantees that his diplomatic asylum will be honoured. The Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, recently stated “If Sweden really wants to pursue sexual assault case - [and it's] not just pretext - why not promise Assange no extradition to US?” and, “[the] US [and] Sweden sent Egypt suspects for torture, so Assange has reason to fear extradition”.

 

At a Geneva Press Club conference following the UPR hearing on Sweden, WikiLeaks' lawyer Baltasar Garzón noted that both Ny's refusal to use the EU Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance to question, and the Swedish government's refusal to guarantee Assange's asylum, amount to compelling Assange to “renounce his right to asylum in order [to] answer a proceeding by the Swedish government” and that, “this is a clear violation of his [basic legal] rights.” This is because placing Assange in danger of being extradited to the US violates Sweden's legal obligation under Article 1 of the EU Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to “secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms defined in Section I”. In particular, Sweden must protect Assange's Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 3 (prohibition of torture) rights, both of which are at risk: Chelsea Manning did not receive a fair trail, to the extent of even being denied the chance to make a 'Public Accountability' defence; and was subjected to appalling abuse, found to be “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” by UN Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, who believed that torture was used "in an effort to coerce [Manning] into 'cooperation' with the authorities, allegedly for the purpose of persuading him to implicate others." The “others” are the staff of WikiLeaks.

 

The Supreme Court will be aware that if it fails to address the issue of US extradition and the denial of both asylum rights and the obligation to secure rights, the EU Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) could be called to make a ruling. Melinda Taylor, representing WikiLeaks, stated:

As a matter of law it is very clear under the ECtHR, it is clear under the EU Human Rights Commission, and under the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention - you cannot be compelled to put your life at risk. You cannot be compelled to give up a fundamental right, such as the right of asylum. [When it is] not a real choice to leave, [because] you expose yourself to a risk of persecution, a risk of harm, a risk of torture. The day [Mr. Assange] steps outside [the embassy], he is exposing himself to a risk of extradition to the US, where he will face an unfair and illegal investigation, he will face a similar fate to Chelsea Manning, who was subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment. And that is not a choice. So yes, he is detained.

If the detention order came before the ECtHR, it would not only do so in the context of a highly critical UPR hearing, but also of a previous ruling by the ECtHR, which found the circumstances of Assange's detention to be unlawful. Garzón:

In the case of Abdi v. United Kingdom [April 2013], when Mr. Abdi refused to go back to Somalia, the UK stated that he was willingly staying where he was and was not being detained, but the [ECtHR] stated that it was indeed detention because he didn't have the option to go elsewhere.

The ECtHR's Abdi v. United Kingdom ruling cites UK guidance (R v Governor of Durham Prison, Hardial Singh, 1984):

And found that the UK had violated Abdi's ECHR Article 5 rights:

ii. The deportee may only be detained for a period that is reasonable in all the circumstances;

iii. If, before the expiry of the reasonable period, it becomes apparent that the Secretary of State will not be able to effect deportation within that reasonable period, he should not seek to exercise the power of detention;

The applicant also submitted that by virtue of its length his detention between 3 December 2004 and mid-April 2007 was arbitrary and, as such, violated Article 5 § 1 of the Convention. The Government disputed this argument, relying on the risk of absconding, the risk of re-offending, and the fact that the applicant could have ended his detention at any time by agreeing to return to Mogadishu voluntarily.

 

73. Where return was not possible for reasons extraneous to the person detained, the fact that he was not willing to return voluntarily could not be held against him since his refusal had no causal effect. 74. In [Mikolenko v. Estonia], the Court did not suggest that the applicant’s refusal to co-operate with his deportation was irrelevant; however, in view of the extraordinary length of his detention and the fact that his removal had for all practical purposes become virtually impossible, it accepted that his continued detention was no longer being effected with a view to his deportation. 75. In conclusion, there has been a violation of Article 5 § 1 of the Convention in the present case in relation to the applicant’s detention between 3 December 2004 and his release in mid-April 2007.

The ECtHR's willingness to support Article 40 of Magna Carta (June 1215), “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice” stands in contrast to affairs in Sweden. Indeed, Sweden's delegation at the UPR hearing “did not answer any questions” related to the Assange case, despite the fact that the majority of review submissions were about the controversy.

 

After the UPR report was adopted, foreign minister Annika Söder stated that it was “a very complex issue, the government can do very little”, but “hoped that there was a way forward, one way or another”. Söder also said the "basic investigations will continue". However, in May 2013, prosecutor Ny stated: “There are no remaining measures in the investigation, only to interrogate [Assange]”, and yet, she has made no move to fulfil this final step. Ny also said: “There may be parts of the case that will be closed”, in other words, the case could be in the same position as when Eva Finné dismissed it, and Ny must be, at least in part, relying on self-incrimination, despite being unable to compel or assume cooperation. Further, the distorted EAW issued by Ny must be, at least in part, based on material that she does not have confidence in.

 

It has become apparent that Ny and the courts that have supported her are acting as though the discredited US grand-jury system were in effect in Sweden. United States v. Williams, 504 U.S. 36 (1992), examined whether prosecutors could withhold "substantial exculpatory evidence" in order to obtain an indictment, and found that: “the suspect under investigation by the grand-jury [has never] been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.”

 

The consequences of this ruling reached a global significance when, in 1998, Kenneth Starrmanipulated the powers of the grand-jury” during a “highly politicized” assault on the Clinton presidency. The decision by Ny not to question Assange follows the grand-jury model of denying the right to testify, as does her and the court's suppression of key exculpatory evidence. Further, Ny can designate exculpatory evidence as “slasken” (surplus materials), and in a process (that even Starr would find offensive) often called “qualified transparency” keep it permanently hidden from public oversight. A process in which exculpatory evidence becomes "secret information", where it is presented in a closed-door trial and then locked away, is open to abuse.

 

At Sweden's UPR press conference, WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison asked Anders Rönquist (Director General for Legal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to respond to Ecuador’s proposal of time limits to detention without charge. In reply, Rönquist stated that: "there is no limit", and when asked about the human rights implications of such a position, he said "there is no limit obligation under human rights law to fix a maximum length of detention." However, as mentioned, indefinite detention violates Article 5 of the ECHR, as well as Article 9 of the UDHR. It is telling that Rönquist's legal opinion is unique in Western legal jurisdictions, with the exception of Guantánamo Bay, where the wartime powers that are used to justify it are slowly being imported onto the US mainland.

 

While Söder and Ny find complexity in progressing the Assange case, others understand that the actual difficulties come from a corrupt and politicized process that threatens to spiral out of control. The adopted 'static solution' (to wait until Sweden's ten-year limitations period has past), which allows the prosecutor to throw her hands up and blame Assange for her refusal to question him, may not last the distance. And the fact that US espionage limitation length covers this period, means that the issue of guaranteeing asylum rights will continue to haunt Sweden until the case is resolved. Alternatively, an approach of moving the case forward could quickly result in its collapse and the beginning of recriminations. If the impasse continues, in seven months Ny will have to either charge Assange (due to the limitations period) or see the case dismissed. There is no simple solution left to Sweden, and all that remains is to write off a cost that will only grow with time.

 

In all of this, the question for Sweden is whether it wants a close foreign policy alliance to extend into adopting aspects of US judicial policy. As the US wages war on journalism, Sweden's freedom of information culture, dating back to the Press Act of 1766, is becoming endangered by its refusal to protect the journalism of WikiLeaks. At a time when the political landscape of Europe is opening towards the left, and the US is accelerating its permanent state of free fall, Sweden's left-green Löfven cabinet should replace outdated alignments and pursue a new European independence. To see Löfven and perhaps Sweden's future direction, look towards the Supreme Court.