The Julian Assange circus: why is Carl Bildt lying?

First, let me state that I am as adamantly in favour of Julian Assange being extradited to Sweden as I am opposed to him being extradited to the USA for any Wikileaks-related offense. Being a jurist, reading the press coverage and blog & twitter comments on the Julian Assange circus has proved very demanding – the amount of bad faith, ignorance and paranoia has been staggering, mostly on the part of the Assangistas, many of whom have not refrained from smearing the two female victims in the Swedish court case at heart of the matter.

I do not propose to comment all the idiotic allegations and comments made, too daunting a task, but will here turn to comments made by the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, and also on the behaviour of the Swedish prosecution service, Åklagarmyndigheten, in relation to their refusal to issue a guarantee that Julian Assange would not be extradited to the United States on any Wikileaks-related charge. Most Assangistas point to two possible solutions to the current legal, diplomatic and political conundrum: Swedish prosecutors and policemen could agree to his offer to be interrogated in London, at the Ecuadorian embassy, or the Swedish government could issue a guarantee that Assange would not be extradited to the USA.

The first solution is easy to dismiss: such an interrogation, taking place in a foreign embassy in a third country, would not be done under normal interrogation conditions. The Ecuadorian embassy, acting on instructions of a president who’s taken sides with Assange, would in effect be dictating the terms of that police interrogation. Furthermore, Julian Assange, who is a fugitive and has jumped bail on the UK court orders upholding the European Arrest Warrant, would be treated in a very favourable and discriminatory way as compared to other suspects. Finally, and more importantly, there would be no real possibility to confront him with the two victims under normal circumstances. The Swedish prosecuting service has said as much in a press communiqué:

Varför kan inte åklagaren förhöra Assange i Storbritannien?

En förklaring till åklagarens beslut att inte förhöra Assange i Storbritannien.
I ärenden där en misstänkt person befinner sig utomlands måste åklagaren överväga vilka förundersökningsåtgärder som är möjliga enligt svensk rätt och internationella instrument. Vidare måste åklagaren överväga vad som krävs i det enskilda fallet för att utredningen ska kunna genomföras på ett rättssäkert och effektivt sätt utan att kvaliteten åsidosätts. Åklagaren måste också överväga hur en eventuell rättegång ska kunna genomföras, om utredningen leder till att åklagaren väcker åtal, och hur ett eventuellt straff ska kunna verkställas.
I detta ärende utmynnade åklagarens överväganden i att Julian Assange begärdes häktad för de brott han var misstänkt för. Med stöd av domstolens häktningsbeslut utfärdade åklagaren en europeisk arresteringsorder.
Åklagarens bedömning är att Julian Assange av utredningsskäl behöver vara tillgänglig i Sverige under förundersökningen. Det som kan nämnas, utan att gå in på utredningsarbetet i detalj, är att det finns behov av att vid förhör med Julian Assange kunna presentera och höra honom om den bevisning som kommit fram i utredningen samt att i den fortsatta utredningen vid behov kunna genomföra kompletterande förhör med Julian Assange och andra inblandade personer.
Enligt svensk lagstiftning krävs att den åtalade är personligen närvarande vid rättegången när det gäller den här typen av brott. Om förundersökningen leder fram till att bevisningen bedöms räcka för åtal mot Julian Assange krävs hans personliga närvaro i Sverige för att en rättegång ska kunna genomföras och för att ett eventuellt straff ska kunna verkställas. Domstolens häktningsbeslut innebär att Julian Assange är häktad för att säkerställa detta.
Translation:

Why can’t the prosecutor interrogate Assange in Britain?
An explanation of the prosecutor’s decision not to interrogate Assange in Britain.

In cases where a suspect is abroad, the prosecutor must consider the preliminary actions possible under Swedish law and international instruments. Furthermore, the prosecutor must consider what is required in each case for the investigation to be conducted in a legally secure and efficient manner without sacrificing overriding quality requirements. The prosecutor must also consider how a trial could be implemented, if the investigation could lead to prosecuting the suspect, and how a possible sentence would be enforced.

In this case these considerations led the prosecutor to request that Julian Assange be put in custody for the crimes he was suspected of. Based on the Court’s decision to grant that request, the prosecutor issued an European arrest warrant.

The prosecutor believes that Julian Assange needs to be available in Sweden during the preliminary investigation for the sake of the investigation. It is to be mentioned, without going into the investigation in detail, that there is a need, when interrogating Julian Assange, to present and hear him on the evidence that has come forward during the investigation and that there is also a need, if necessary, to carry out additional interviews with Julian Assange and other people involved under the further investigation.

Under Swedish law, the defendant is required to be personally present at the trial in the case of such a crime. If the inquiry leads to the conclusion that the evidence is considered sufficient for prosecution against Julian Assange, his personal presence in Sweden will be required for a trial to be carried out and for any sentence to be enforced. The Court’s arrest warrant means that Julian Assange has been arrested to secure this.

In fact, judicial policy reasons are probably decisive: allowing a fugitive to set conditions for his interrogation in spite of the courts of the requested country – the UK – having granted an European arrest warrant request would send a catastrophic signal, giving suspects around the EU a useful tip on how to evade justice. Once the extradition procedure has been launched, any other outcome would not only be a humiliating stepdown for the two court systems involved, but also a severe setback for the European arrest warrant, seen as a substantial step forward for a speedier judiciary co-operation within the EU. To sum up: prosecutors usually interrogate suspects on their premises, and there is no reason why Assange shouldn’t be treated as any other sex crime suspect in this respect.
The other solution proposed by the Assangistas is of another order altogether. Julian Assange is a well-known activist, and US authorities are widely known to want his extradition for trial for Wikileaks’ publication of US diplomatic cables. It should however be stressed that no such extradition request has been made by the US to the UK government, despite the very close diplomatic and security links between the two, the UK being the US’ closest intelligence partner. The Assangistas therefore suggest that Sweden could issue a guarantee that it would not extradite Assange to the US for any Wikileaks-related charge.
That suggestion is more difficult to dismiss. Extradition procedures are typically of a mixed nature, where courts and governments share the final decision – it is not unknown for governments to reject an extradition request in spite of court verdict allowing it. This is the case under Sweden’s law (1957:668) on extradition – its articles 1, 14 and 15 establish that an extradition request must be lodged with the Swedish justice department, the decision being taken by the government after having heard the Prosecutor general and, if the person whose extradition is sought objects to his extradition, the Supreme Court. In the last case, the government may not however overrule the Supreme Court’s judgment that an extradition would breach the law. Article 12 adds that the government may put conditions on its decision to accept an extradition request. The deciding body is thus the government, with an input by the Prosecutor general and a veto right given to the Supreme Court in case where the requested person doesn’t accept to be extradited.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, has however said that he is prevented from issuing such a guarantee:

Tidigare i veckan sade utrikesminister Carl Bildt till TT att skälet till att en garanti inte kan ges är enkelt:

– Rättssystemet i Sverige är oberoende. Jag kan inte göra några uttalanden som binder rättssystemet på något sätt. Då skulle jag bryta mot den svenska grundlagen.

Translation:

Earlier this week, foreign minister Carl Bildt declared to Sweden’s news agency TT that the reason why such a guarantee cannot be issued is simple:

- The Swedish court system is independent. I cannot make any declaration that bind the court system in any way. I would then be violating the Swedish constitution.

His declarations are as far as I can judge without any legal basis. As we’ve seen, Swedish extradition law clearly states that the Swedish government is the body deciding on any extradition request (with the exception of requests based on the European Arrest Warrant or the Nordic Arrest Warrant). Article 1 of that law clearly states that the government decides on extradition, and this is repeated throughout the text (articles 12, 14, 15, 17 and 21 of the law). No provision gives any court the right to decide on an extraditions request. The nearest such provision is that the government may not extradite someone for whom the Supreme Court has found that an extradition would not be in conformity with the law.

The last sentence of article 15 even says the following:

15 § Innan regeringen meddelar beslut i anledning av framställningen, skall yttrande avges av riksåklagaren. Har inte den som avses med framställningen samtyckt till att han utlämnas, skall ärendet dessutom prövas av högsta domstolen. Är det uppenbart att framställningen ej bör bifallas, skall den dock omedelbart avslås.

Translation:

Before the government takes a decision on an extradition request, an opinion is to be given by the Prosecutor general. If the person whose extradition is requested does not agree to his extradition, the case is to be transmitted to the Supreme Court. If it is manifestly evident that the extradition request should not be granted, it should however be rejected immediately.

True, no formal extradition request relating to Julian Assange has been made by the US government to the Swedish government – yet. But such a request would be ultimately decided by the Swedish government, not by the courts – unless the government would wish to overrule a Supreme Court decision that an extradition of Assange would be contrary to the extradition law (we can safely assume that Assange would object to his extradition to the US). If the Swedish government has no intention to grant such a hypothetical request, why not issue a guarantee anyway?

By doing so, the Swedish government would only make an advance, principled decision on a future, hypothetical US request for Assange’s extradition. The last sentence of article 15 of the law on extradition would allow for the government to immediately reject a request it would consider manifestly unfounded, proividing of course such a request was made. Nothing would prevent the Swedish government to make an advance statement to the effect that should any extradition request be made from a third country for Julian Assange and relating to the publication of confidential documents through Wikileaks, it would reject it. It could even cite article 6 of the law on extradition, which provides that extradition may not be sought for political crimes or for crimes of an overwhelmingly political nature.

If there is a general principle of Swedish law, or a specific provision, prohibiting an administrative body – in this case the government – from announcing in advance how it intends to decide on a specific request, I would like to know it (this is a sincere request – if better informed readers can enlighten me on this, I’d be grateful). One must furthermore note that the request in question is made by a foreign government, not by an individual. That request is of a political nature and the law on extradition does in no way prohibit the Swedish government from refusing such a request whenever it so choses. On the contrary, the law aims at safeguarding the rights of the person whose extradition is sought – for instance, no extradition is allowed of a Swedish national (article 2), or for military crimes (article 5), or for political crimes (article 6), or in the case of discrimination or persecution (article 7), or if an extradition would be inhumane (article 8) or if the person’s right to a fair trial haven’t been guaranteed (article 9). In Assange’s case, a guarantee not to extradite him to the USA would obviously be in his interest, thus being in conformity with the law’s spirit. The huge gain in working hours and litigation costs that could be saved by issuing such a guarantee to Assange’s lawyers should also be considered, not to mention the possibility for the Swedish prosecutor service to interrogate him on Swedish soil.

The real question is therefore: since there are no legal obstacles for the Swedish government to issue such  guarantee, why is it reticent to issue one? Maybe Carl Bildt has a convincing answer to that question.

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