The legal twists and turns of the rape charges against Julian Assange

On Friday, August 20, at 14.30, two women, Anna and Eva (not their real names) stepped into a Stockholm police station and accused Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – who’s been in Sweden since  on a PR tour and possibly to establish his residence there – of rape and molestation. Rape is punishable by between 2 and 6 years’ imprisonment according to 6 kap. 1 § brottsbalken (Swedish penal code – an English translation of it is available here, but it dates from 1999) while molestation – i.e. the act of physically or otherwise molesting another person – is punishable by one year’s imprisonment according to 4 kap. 7 § of the penal code.

Here is the version of what happened, as reported by Swedish media and based on one of two women’s version – the one who was molested – as well as on police sources.

Saturday, August 14:  Anna, who lives in Enköping, a small town 78 km from Stockholm, volunteered her support to Wikileaks during their very well publicised visit to Sweden. She met Julian Assange for a late lunch in Stockholm, and went to the movies with him. They agreed to keep in touch over the phone. Later that night, Julian Assange was taken to a crayfish party . Another woman, Eva has accused him of having molested her during that party. (Expressen, August 22)

Monday, August 16: Anna and Julian Assange meet for a walk in Stockholm. They then took the train to her apartment in Enköping. They had consensual sex. (Expressen, August 22)

Tuesday, August 17: Anna claims that Julian Assange went beyond the kind of sex she had agreed to: « He went too far (« Han gick för långt« ) ». Anna said she was very clear about setting the limits to the kind of sexual contact she agreed to (Julian Assange flatly denies any non-consensual sex). After that, she sent text messages to her friends telling them about the incident (the police have reportedly verified the contents of her mobile phone). (Expressen, August 22)

Friday, August 20:  At around 14 hours, Anna & Eva, who came into contact with each other, decided to go to a police station in Stockholm to ask for advice on what happened to them, as they did not intend initially to press for criminal charges against Julian Assange. Eva accompanied Anna to support her rape allegations, as she alleged having been victim to similar behavior on the part of Julian Assange (no alleged rape in her case though, only molestation, a less serious crime). The police officer in charge thought however that they wanted to press charges and contacted the prosecutor on duty later in the evening. At 21.20, the prosecutor on duty, Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, based on a phone conversation with the police officer in charge, decided to issue an arrest warrant against Julian Assange, suspected upon probable cause ot have committed the alleged rape. (Dagens Nyheter, August 22)

Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, the prosecutor who issued the arrest warrant against Julian Assange

Saturday, August 21: Having received completing information, Stockholm chief prosecutor Eva Finné quashes the arrest warrant, declaring as follows on the Swedish Prosecution Authority’s website:

– Jag anser inte att det finns anledning att misstänka att han har begått våldtäkt, säger Eva Finné.

English translation:

– I do not think there is any reason to suspect that he has committed a rape, says Eva Finné.

Eva Finné, Stockholm's chief prosecutor, who quashed the initial arrest warrant against Julian Assange.

Julian Assange still remains under investigation for the alleged molestation.

For his part, Julian Assange has denied any rape. He has given an exclusive interview to the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, with which he just signed a contract to write weekly chronicles. Here are his comments on the allegations levelled against him:

Två kvinnor hävdar att du utsatt dem för sexbrott. Kommentar?

– Det går inte att kommentera det här. Det finns inga konkreta berättelser att ta ställning till.

Har du haft sex med dem?

– De är anonymiserade i media. Jag har ingen aning om vilka de är.

Har du haft sex över huvud taget under din vistelse i Sverige?

– Det är en sak som tillhör mitt och eventuellt förekommande kvinnors privatliv.

Men är det inte lika bra att du i den här situationen är så öppen som möjligt?

– Jo, men jag vill inte dra människors privatliv i smutsen utan att först ha hela situationen klar för mig. Varför vänder de sig till polisen? Vad ligger bakom?

– Det jag kan säga är att jag aldrig, vare sig i Sverige eller i något annat land, haft sex med någon på ett sätt som inte byggt på total frivillighet från båda sidor.

English translation:

Two women accuse you of having committed sex crimes on them. Any comment?
– I cannot comment this. There aren’t any detailed stories to consider.

Did you have sex with them?
– They have been anonymized in media. I have no clue of who they are.

Did you have any sex at all during your visit to Sweden?
– This is a matter which is part of my private life and that of possibly concerned women.

But isn’t it better for you to be as open as possible in this situation you’re in?
– Yes, but I don’t want to drag people’s private life into the mud without being clear about the situation. Why are they turning to the police? What’s behind this?

– All I can say is that I’ve never had sex, in Sweden or in any other country, in a way that isn’t built on total willingness from both parts.

Julian Assange further declares that he hasn’t talked either to the police or to the prosecutor service, and indicates that he plans to stay on a bit longer in Sweden than was planned earlier. Asked whether he’s walked right into a sex trap, he answers: « maybe, maybe not« , noting that he’s been warned against sex traps beforehand.

A few legal clarifications are maybe in order.

  1. Julian Assange was subjected to an arrest warrant in his absence – anhållande i hans frånvaro. Such decisions are ruled by 24 kap. rättegångsbalken (Swedish Code of judicial procedure, of which there is a 1998 English translation here). An arrest warrant may be issued either if the suspect is suspected on probable cause to have committed a crime (24 kap. 2 § Code of judicial procedure), or if he is suspected only on reasonable cause (24 kap. 3§ Code of judicial procedure). Probable cause requires of course a higher threshold of evidentiary proof against the suspect, and makes it easier for the prosecutor to request the suspect’s pre-trial detention (24 kap. 2§ as compared with 24 kap. 3§ of the Code of judicial procedure). In her decision, the prosecutor on duty indicated that Julian Assange was suspected on probable cause to have committed a rape. This was interpreted by some commentators as to indicate that substantial evidence was at hand linking Assange to the rape.
  2. His arrest warrant was quashed within less than 24 hours, by the prosecutor on duty’s superior, Stockholm chief prosecutor Eva Finné. This is in line with 24 kap. 10 § of the Code of judicial procedure: « Om det inte längre finns skäl för ett anhållningsbeslut, skall åklagaren omedelbart häva beslutet » – « When there are no longer reasons for an order for arrest, the prosecutor shall rescind the order immediately« . While the prosecutor on duty based her decision on oral information from the police, it must be presumed that the chief prosecutor had completing information – probably the police transcripts of the interviews with Anna and Eva. This was later confirmed on the website of the Swedish Prosecution Authority:

When Ms Finné became in charge of the matter on Saturday, she had more information than the first prosecutor had on Friday night. Decisions on coercive measures, like arrest, should constantly be re-evaluated during an investigation and must always be based on the actual information.

Legal analysts have been quick to comment. Sven-Erik Alhem, well known and outspoken former prosecutor, has been critical of the apparent u-turn in the prosecution authority’s stance:

Enligt den tidigare överåklagaren så är det fråga om flera brister och misstag i åklagarnas handlande som måste förklaras, inte bara inför själva anmälarna och den misstänkte eller svenska allmänheten, utan för världen.

– För det första så sker anhållandet på den starkare misstanken ”sannolika skäl”. Det berättar att misstankarna är särskilt starka. Sedan hävs beslutet några timmar senare, utan att något nytt i fallet verkar tillkommit. Det är mycket förvirrande.

– För det andra brukar ett anhållande i frånvaro inte offentliggöras. Det gagnar inte precis saken utan ger den misstänkte en chans att undkomma. Nu skedde det likväl med pukor och trumpeter. Och så blåses allt plötsligt av!

– Inte minst när en sådan här sak händer en välkänd person inför en hel värld behövs det någon sansad åklagare som träder fram och som kan redogöra och räta ut de här frågetecknen, säger Sven-Erik Alhem, som numera är ordförande i Brottsofferjourernas Riksförbund, BOJ. (Dagens Nyheter, August 22)

English translation:

According to the former regional prosecutor, the prosecutors have to explain many errors and omissions they’ve committed, not only to the plaintiffs and the suspect or the Swedish general public, but the whole world.
– Firstly, the arrest is based on the higher level of suspicion « probable cause ». This indicates that the level of suspicion is particularly high. Then you rescind the order a few hours later, without anything new being added to the case. This is all very confusing.
– Secondly, an arrest order in the absence of the suspect is generally not made public. It is not really productive and gives the suspect a chance to absconce. In this case they made a sound and light spectacle out of it. And then they call everything off!
– When something like this happens to a well known person you need a sensible prosecutor to step forward and sort out the questionmarks, says Sven-Erik Alhem, who is nowadays chairman of the Crime Victims Centres National Federation, BOJ. (Dagens Nyheter, August 22)

Dagens Nyheter journalist however made further inquiries on whether it is unusal for a rape suspect to be tagged with the « probable cause« -level of suspicion rather than simply with « reasonable cause« :

Just den högre misstankegraden ”sannolika skäl” är, vad DN.se erfar, mer regel än undantag när det handlar om våldtäkt, vilket skulle kunna tala för en slentrianmässig eller automatiserad bedömning av misstankegraden i samband med anhållanden. Saken bekräftades också direkt av jouråklagaren Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, som i går till DN.se sa:

– Det är normalt att ange ”sannolika skäl” i samband med anhållande om våldtäkter.

En enkel sökning på internet, där DN.se jämför användadet av den högre misstankegraden ”sannolika skäl” och den lägre graden ”skäligen misstänkt för” i samband med anhållande för våldtäkt visar också på samma sak. En bred majoritet av de som anhålls i Sverige, misstänkta för våldtäkt, har ”anhållits på sannolika skäl misstänkt för våldtäkt”.(Dagens Nyheter, August 22)

English translation:

According to DN.se, the higher level of suspicion « probable cause » is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to rape, which could indicate a routine or automatised evaluation of the level of suspicion in connection with arrest warrants. The prosecutor on duty [who issued the arrest warrant against Julian Assange] confirmed this:
– It is usual to indicate a « probable cause »-level of suspicion in connection with arrest warrants for rape charges.

A search on Internet by DN.se, where the use of « probable cause » has been compared to the use of « reasonable cause » in connection with arrest orders on rape charges, gives the same answer. A large majority of those arrested in Sweden on charges of rape, are « arrested upon probable cause of having committed a rape« .(Dagens Nyheter, August 22)

Another contentious issue has been the swift rescision of the arrest warrant by the prosecution authority. As intimated earlier, this is perfectly in line with the letter and the spirit of the Code of judicial procedure. Sweden’s most well-known trial lawyer, Leif Silbersky, has commented on this specific issue:

Att en åklagare häver en anhållan är ovanligt men förekommer, säger advokat Leif Silbersky till DN.se.

– Jag har själv varit med om det några gånger och det har då berott på att man grundat det första beslutet på knapphändiga uppgifter. Men sedan fått fram sådana omständigheter som gjort att man har ändrat sig. Jag tycker att det är hedervärt att man kan ändra sin ståndpunkt, eftersom en sådan här anklagelse drabbar personen i fråga mycket hårt. (Dagens Nyheter, August 21)

English translation:

The fact that a prosecutor rescinds an arrest warrant is unusual but it happens, says lawyer Leif Silbersky to DN.se.
– I have personnally experienced this a few times and it has then been the result of taking the initial decision on a sparse factual ground. Then fresh circumstances appear that call for changing the initial decision. I find changing one’s standpoint a honourable thing to do, as such an accusation is very harsh on the suspect.(Dagens Nyheter, August 21)

The prosecutor who issued the initial arrest warrant, Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, has seven years experience as a prosecutor, specialised in sex and relationship crimes. She doesn’t have any second thoughts about her decision:

– Jag fick en redogörelse av polisen som jag tyckte var tillräcklig för att anhålla honom. Jag ångrar inte mitt beslut på något sätt, säger Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand. (…)
– I fredags kväll fick jag ett joursamtal från en polis som redogjorde för mig vad kvinnorna hade sagt, säger Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand.
– De uppgifter som jag fick var så övertygande att jag fattade mitt beslut, säger Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand.
Hon fick inte några skriftliga förhör av polisen. Och inte heller konkreta bevis mot Assange. Bara en redogörelse av polisernas förhör med kvinnorna.
– Det bruka räcka i sådana fall, säger Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand. (Expressen, August 22)

English translation:

– I was provided with a report from the police which I found sufficient for him to be arrested. I do not regret my decision in any way, says Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand. (…)
– On Friday night I got a duty call from a police officer who reported on what the two women had told, says Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand.
– The information I was given was so convincing that I took my decision, says Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand. She didn’t receive any written police transcripts, nor any concrete evidence against Assange. Only a report on the police questioning of the two women.
– It’s usually sufficient in this kind of cases, says Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand. (Expressen, August 22)

Question marks have been raised on the internal communication within the prosecution authority. Prosecutor Häljebo Kjellstrand acknowledges she had spoken with chief prosecutor Finné (they spoke over the phone before Finné’s decision to rescind the arrest warrant against Assange), and Finné has asserted having more information than Häljebo Kjellstrand to rest her decision upon:

When Ms Finné became in charge of the matter on Saturday, she had more information than the first prosecutor had on Friday night. Decisions on coercive measures, like arrest, should constantly be re-evaluated during an investigation and must always be based on the actual information. (site of the Swedish Prosecution Authority)

Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand tried to put on a brave face when confronted with the rescision decision, but her disappointment could still be read between the lines:

– Antagligen har hon fått nya uppgifter. Det bör hon har fått. Annars man överprövar inte någon annans beslut, säger Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand.
« Varit i kontakt »

Kjellstrand och Finné samtalade med varandra på telefon innan det nya beslutet togs. Kjellstrand vill inte gå in i detaljer om vad som sades i samtalet.
– Vi har varit i kontakt med varandra. Jag visste om hennes beslut innan det blev offentligt. Jag är inte besviken på något sätt. Det händer att ett beslut ändras, säger Kjellstrand. (Expressen, August 22)

English translation:

– She probably received fresh information. She must have. You do not rescind someone else’s decision otherwise, says Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand.
« We’ve been in touch »

Kjellstrand and Finné spoke together over the phone before the new decision was taken. Kjellstrand doesn’t want to discuss the details of that conversation.
– We’ve been in contact with each other. I knew about her decision before it was made public. I’m not disappointed in any way. It happens that decisions change, says Kjellstrand. (Expressen, August 22)

However, the Swedish Prosecution Authority’s spokesperson, Karin Rosander, gave the impression that no one had any clue on what basis Häljebo Kjellstrand had taken her decision – see this interview, in English.

A Swedish human rights group has decided to register a complaint against prosecutor Kjellstrand with Sweden’s Parliamentary Ombudsman, accusing her of having issued an arrest warrant on the scantiest of evidence.

Worth to remember in all of this is the complaint initially lodged by Anna and Eva. Eva, the one having accused Assange of molestation, has adamently rejected any conspiracy or manipulation:

-Anklagelserna mot Assange är förstås inte iscensatta av varken Pentagon eller någon annan. Ansvaret för det som hänt mig och den andra tjejen ligger hos en man med skev kvinnosyn och problem att ta ett nej, säger hon till Aftonbladet. (Eva, speaking to Expressen, August 21)

English translation:

-The charges against Assange are of course not framed by the Pentagon or anyone else. The responsability for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man with a slanted view of women and having problems at taking no for an answer, she told Aftonbladet. (Eva, speaking to Expressen, August 21)

While both women state they are not afraid of Assange, contrary to what has been reported in the media (Eva even states that Assange isn’t a violent person), Eva and Anna fully maintain their allegations.

And another thing: Sweden has for many years now been thrown into a fierce and politicised public debate over low conviction rates and prison terms in rape cases. Feminists have managed a change in the law ruling sexual exploitation, and media  have generally been much tougher on rape suspects than was previously the case, especially when suspects have been powerful or famous men. This should not be discarded when studying the Assange case.

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