Julian Assange

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Assange extradition fears are real

Assange extradition fears are real

In theory, it ought to be difficult for the Obama administration, pressured by the resurgent and bloodthirsty Right, to demand the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Sweden.

But the reality is that the Swedes will succumb to political pressure and undermine or sidestep the rule of law and allow the US ‘to land their quarry’.

The claim by Assange’s legal team that one of the prime arguments against their client being extradited to Sweden to face investigation over alleged sexual assault charges is that he will end up being tortured in a high security American prison, are not simply hyperbolic advocacy.

Under Swedish law the extradition of an individual to a non-Nordic or non-European Union country can only occur if the following conditions are met.

Firstly, the principle of dual criminality applies. That is, the act or alleged crime for which extradition is requested must be equivalent to a crime that is punishable under Swedish law by a jail term of one year or more. So you can’t be extradited for traffic offences for example.

Secondly, extradition will not be granted for the prosecution of “military or political offences”.

And finally extradition will not be granted if the person being extradited runs a risk on account of his or her religious or political beliefs, or ethnic origin of being persecuted. And if he or she faces the death penalty the Swedes will not hand the person over to another state.

If it is assumed Sweden has an equivalent to an American official secrets or espionage law and therefore the issue of dual criminality is settled, the US could not possibly satisfy the Swedish government that Mr Assange would not face all manner of cruel and unusual punishment by security agencies and US police. Even keeping Mr Assange isolated from other detainees and locked in his cell for 23 hours a day - a common penal American practice - should be enough to stop Swedish cooperation in an extradition. Then there is the fact that US federal law in respect of the offences of espionage and treason both carry the death penalty as a theoretical sentence. Theoretical because there is no-one currently on death row who has been convicted of these offences. But Mr Assange’s hosting of a website which carried an unprecedented number of US government documents might have prosecutors arguing for the death penalty.

In short, it is hard to see how Sweden, acting strictly in accordance with its own laws on extradition, could contemplate acceding to any US request to hand over Mr Assange.

But Sweden’s track record in recent years in cases where extradition or forcible return to another country would result in human rights abuse is not one that would give Mr Assange any comfort.

In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights intervened to overturn a Swedish decision to deport two Syrian men, brothers, who were wanted in Syria over alleged ‘honour killings’. The Swedish authorities, having received information that the death penalty was unlikely to be imposed on the brothers, ordered that they been returned to Syria. The European Court upheld the brother’s argument that they feared persecution on return to Syria and noted that the Swedish government had been prepared to act on incomplete information and vague assurances from the Syrian embassy.

Four years earlier in December 2001, the Swedish authorities, again acting after obtaining assurances from Egypt that two asylum seekers would not be subjected to torture and would receive a fair trial, handed over Mohammed al-Zari and Ahmed Agiza, to the Americans who transferred the men to Cairo.

There is also the political overlay in the Assange case which taints the extradition process. As we saw in this country in relation to David Hicks and Mammoth Habib it did not matter what domestic or international law conventions and rules should have been applied to their cases, the overriding consideration by the Howard government was to cooperate with the Bush White House.

As Australian diplomat and writer Tony Kevin pointed out in a briefing to federal MPs last week (at which I also spoke) the current Swedish government of prime minister Fredric Reinfeldt is a centre-right coalition heeded by the Moderate Party “which has close ties with the US Republican right. Reinfeldt and Bush are friends. Reimfeldt is ideologically and personally close to the former Bush Administration”. And, Kevin noted, that Bush’s former right hand man and Republican strategist Karl Rove is a consultant to the Swedish government on political issues.

Sweden projects an image of liberalism and determined independence but it is an illusion. So the chance of Julian Assange being whisked away by CIA operatives from Sweden is a very real one. If it happens Assange will face the same fate as Hicks and Habib - physical and mental torture over a sustained period.

Greg Barns is a barrister and writer. He is a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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