In Julian Assange extradition case, spotlight turns on Swedish law

Julian Assange's lawyers charged that the Swedish legal system was being co-opted by the United States in its pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder.

Alastair Grant/AP
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London on Feb. 8. His lawyers argued against his extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in a case involving the sexual assault of two women.

The Swedish legal system found itself under the microscope this week as defense lawyers for the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, called the judiciary’s investigation into the famed whistleblower flawed and politically motivated.

Today in London, Mr. Assange's lawyers argued against his extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in a case involving the sexual assault of two women. While he has denied the accusations, Assange and his defense team have skillfully presented the image of an unfair and compromised Swedish judiciary to bolster their case against extradition. (Editor's note: The original version of this sentence should have used the word "accusations" to refer to the nature of the case involving possible sexual assault.)

Normally cited as an example of good governance, Sweden is now fending off attacks from Assange's lawyers who charge the country is pursuing their client at the behest of the US for leaking classified government and military documents.

WikiLeaks 101: Five questions about who did what and when

Among other things, Assange’s lawyers stated he would be tried behind closed doors if sent to Sweden. They have also alleged the investigation is nothing short of a CIA plot to ensnare Assange and get him in a US courtroom, where they say he could face the death penalty.

“It’s just bogus. It has no merit at all,” says Marten Schultz, a professor of law at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden, about Assange's argument. “The Swedish judicial system is completely separate, more than most countries, from the political system."

Despite the warnings of a "closed door" trial, criminal cases are public in Sweden, though at times the courts can decide to hold the proceedings in private when it comes to particularly sensitive crimes, such as sex crimes. However, three high-profile rape cases here in the last 10 years were open to the public.
 Other differences in the Swedish criminal procedures are that a jury of peers is used in cases of freedom of expression. The courts normally rely on lay judges, who are appointed by local political councils for a period of four years, to reach a verdict in conjunction with the presiding judge.

Prime minister weighs in

Sweden’s Prime Minister Frederik Rienfeldt weighed in today, expressing his disappointment over the comments and saying the country’s judiciary was autonomous and free from political coercion.

"It is unfortunate. We have an independent judiciary,” the premier told Swedish news agency TT. "I can only defend what everyone in Sweden already knows: that we have an independent, noncoerced judiciary.”

Professor Schultz says that while Assange's arguments will likely have little effect on how Sweden’s justice system operates, he said the claims could hurt perceptions of the nation’s independence.

In a statement posted on the Swedish Prosecution Authority’s website today, Prosecutor General Anders Perklev said the office would refrain from commenting on criticism aimed at the authority or at Marianne Ny, the Swedish prosecutor who asked British authorities to detain Assange and send him to Stockholm.

Mr. Perklev would only say that prosecutors are obligated under Swedish law to pursue a criminal investigation when there is sufficient evidence suggesting a crime was committed.

“Marianne Ny thus acted completely in accordance with her role as public prosecutor, and she is obviously authorized to take the decisions in the matter,” the statement read.

Assange’s defense team sought to discredit Ms. Ny’s objectivity by calling on Brita Sundberg-Weitman, a retired Swedish judge, who in court on Monday said Ny, “has a rather biased view against men in the treatment of sexual offenses.”

Under cross-examination, however, Sundberg-Weitman stated she had no personal acquaintance with Ny and was simply going on what she had been told through media reports about the prosecutor.

Closing arguments for the extradition hearing are set for Friday morning.

WikiLeaks 101: Five questions about who did what and when

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