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A Pernicious Attack on Freedom of Expression

Assange and Sweden’s Shame

by MARK WEISBROT

It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie, where the kidnapper walks up from behind, with a gun protruding from his trench coat pocket. “Keep walking, and don’t say anything,” he warns.

Such was the U.K. government’s threat three weeks ago to Ecuador, that British police could invade the Ecuadorian embassy if necessary to arrest WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange. But Ecuador’s foreign minister didn’t keep walking, and said something, to the great embarrassment of the U.K. Foreign Office. The Foreign Office tried to say it wasn’t a threat—although it was now available to the world in writing – and then took it back.

But the unprecedented threat to violate the Vienna convention that protects diplomatic missions brought serious criticism from the Union of South American Nations, and then – despite being watered down by Washington – another rebuke from the Organization of American States.

The U.K.’s threat also made it clear that this case was not about questioning Julian Assange regarding a possible criminal case in Sweden. Few could believe that the U.K. government would have resorted to such extreme and illegal measures if this were just a matter of extraditing a foreign citizen to a foreign country where he is not even charged with a crime.

But what about Sweden’s role in this sordid affair? Most obviously, Sweden has had the opportunity to interview Assange in the U.K., but has repeatedly refused to do so. The Swedish government also refused Ecuador’s offer to interview Assange at its London embassy. As in the past, no justification was offered.

The Swedish government also refused to negotiate with Ecuador for an extradition under which Assange would go to Sweden but not be subject to extradition to the U.S. This would be very easy for Sweden (or the U.K., for that matter) to arrange. Once again, the Swedish government offered no reason for its refusal to consider this obvious solution to the diplomatic impasse.

Contrary to much press commentary, there is no need for conspiracy theories here to draw the logical conclusion. If the Swedish government really wanted to pursue the investigation of sexual offense allegations against Assange, they could do so. But instead, they are deliberately abandoning the criminal investigation – which is getting older and more difficult to pursue – for other reasons.

This also casts serious doubt on all the people who have opposed Assange’s asylum on the grounds that they care about the two women who have accused Assange. (It is worth noting that neither of the two women accused Assange of rape; although that is one of the allegations that has been spread throughout the media and the world). Anyone who was really concerned about pursuing this case would aim their fire at the Swedish prosecutor, and at least ask her why she has abandoned the investigation.

This includes the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Claes Borgström, who was reportedly instrumental in getting the third prosecutor (Marianne Ny) to go after Assange. (The previous prosecutor assigned to the case had dropped it because the evidence is so weak). Borgström has been in the media defending the United States and its allies, rather than his clients, asserting that Assange “must know” that the case “has nothing to do with Wikileaks.” But Borgström must know that there is awealth of evidence that the United States is very much interested in punishing Assange, and it keeps growing: on August 18, the Sydney Morning Herald reportedthat Australia’s foreign service was aware that U.S. authorities had been pursuing Assange for at least 18 months. And on August 24, Craig Murray, a former U.K. ambassador and 20-year career diplomat there, reported that his colleagues at the U.K. Foreign Office knew better than to make the unprecedented threat of invading Ecuador’s embassy, but did so under pressure from Washington.

Like many European countries, including of course the U.K., Sweden’s foreign policy is closely allied with that of the U.S. government. This is not the first time that Sweden has collaborated with its Washington allies to violate human rights and international law. In 2001, the Swedish government turned over two Egyptians to the CIA so that they could be sent to Egypt, where they were tortured. Sweden’s action brought condemnation from the UN and the government was forced to pay damages to the victims; both were later cleared of any wrongdoing. Polls showed that Swedesconsidered this crime the worst political scandal in their country in 20 years.

Sweden is a highly developed social democracy that has many guarantees of civil rights and liberties to its citizens. The people of Sweden should not allow their government to continue to disgrace itself in another international governmental crime – this one a pernicious attack on freedom of expression – simply because Washington wants them to do so.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally appeared in Al Jazeera.

 

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