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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the government’s continued silence over his impending extradition to the US is indefensible, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at court in London in 2019. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP

I have no personal fondness for Julian Assange. I cannot forgive him for not condemning the torrent of abuse and slander suffered by the two Swedish women who, in 2010, accused him of sexual assault. His treatment of them has been shameful. Assange has continued to protest his innocence and has not expressed any regret for what happened

But that was then and this is now. At stake is something much bigger than the fate of one man and two women. And the Swedish government bears a clear share of responsibility for the outcome. 

Sweden’s prosecutors dropped the sexual assault investigation against Assange in 2017. For more than three years, he has been held in a maximum security prison in London while he has fought extradition to the United States on espionage charges. In April, a British court finally approved the extradition and referred the matter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. 

Today (June 17), Patel gave the green light for extradition; Assange has 14 days to appeal. 

Extradition would be a colossal blow against media freedom. Journalists would fear to investigate US military and surveillance operations around the world. Assange himself faces a lifetime in jail for publishing classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including evidence of war crimes

Many Swedish free speech organisations recognise this. “The information obtained thanks to Julian Assange and Wikileaks is of great public interest. In a democracy, whistleblowers must be protected, not taken to court to become pawns in a political game,” says the Swedish Journalists’ Association. A large number of press freedom and human right organisations have echoed these words, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship, to name but a few.

“Should Assange be extradited to the US, it could have serious consequences for investigative journalism,” says the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders. “Through the indictment of Assange, the US is also sending a signal to all journalists who want to examine the actions of the US military and security services abroad, or US arms deals for that matter. This also applies to Swedish journalists.”

Last month, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on Patel not to extradite Assange, saying it would have “a chilling effect on media freedom”.  Anna Ardin, one of the women who brought the original accusations of sexual assault, describes the accusations against Assange for espionage as “helt galet” (completely crazy). 

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the continued silence from Rosenbad, the seat of government offices in Stockholm, is indefensible. 

For the seven years in which Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he said consistently and repeatedly that he was prepared to face justice in Sweden, but feared extradition to the United States and therefore required a guarantee that this would not happen. His treatment in the UK is proof that his fears were justified. 

As early as September 2012, The Local quoted Amnesty International on this matter: “If the Swedish authorities are able to confirm publicly that Assange will not eventually find himself on a plane to the USA if he submits himself to the authority of the Swedish courts then this will … it will break the current impasse and second it will mean the women who have levelled accusations of sexual assault are not denied justice.”

And yet, throughout, Sweden’s Ministry of Justice kept quiet. Instead, the Swedish Prosecution Authority stated repeatedly: “Every extradition case is to be judged on its own individual merits. For that reason the Swedish government cannot provide a guarantee in advance that Julian Assange would not be subject to further extradition to the USA.”

In 2016, a United Nations panel decided that Sweden had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It called on the Swedish authorities to end Assange’s “deprivation of liberty”, respect his freedom of movement and offer him compensation. Again, the government itself remained silent, although Sweden’s director-general for legal affairs said that it disagreed with the panel.

Freedom of speech is one of the four “fundamental laws” that make up the Swedish constitution. There can be no excuse now for Morgan Johansson, Justice Minister, not to speak out in defence of Assange’s role as a whistleblower and journalist. 

Imagine if Assange had revealed Russian war crimes in Ukraine and was being held in Moscow’s high security prison? Every Western leader would be up in arms. 

Assange’s wife Stella Moris has Swedish citizenship. Her life, and that of their two children, will be destroyed if her husband, their father, is sent to rot in a US jail.

At this point in time, when Sweden’s independence in global affairs is in doubt owing to pressure from Turkey over its application to join Nato, it is even more vital for the government to break its silence and help bring the persecution of Julian Assange to an end. 

David Crouch covered Julian Assange’s campaign in the Swedish courts for The Guardian newspaper and is among 1900 journalists to have signed a statement in his defence. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. I agree with freedom of the press but somethings should be respected as state secrets. How many spies/secret agents did he expose and what was their fate. This is what should not be published, he has caused multiple deaths.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

A row over Swedish public television suggests that the room for compromise between the Swedish Democrats and their partners in a possible new coalition government will be limited, argues David Crouch.

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

On Tuesday evening, SVT’s flagship news magazine Aktuellt included a seven-minute segment about the Sweden Democrats (SD). They invited Willy Silberstein, head of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, and PM Nilsson, the respected political editor of business daily Dagens Industri

This was an example of what TV journalists do all the time – get two sensible people with different views to explain and argue their positions. The approach allows viewers to be exposed to different opinions and make up their own minds.  

Silberstein said it was “frightening” that a party with Nazi roots had so much support in Sweden and expressed a concern that the SD’s strong showing at the polls would encourage racists. 

“I do not mean that the Sweden Democrats in any way call for violence against immigrants, but I think there is a risk that a climate will arise where many people who have racist attitudes feel a greater freedom to say things and possibly also act violently against minorities,” he said.

Nilsson respectfully and sympathetically argued that the SD kick extremists out of the party, and that the experience with similar parties in power in other Nordic countries is that they fail to make any fundamental changes to these liberal democracies. In some ways, it felt like the conversation I had with my Jewish relative that I described in my last column, although Nilsson failed to answer the real fear among ethnic minorities that the election result encourages racists. 

This innocuous bit of television provoked a furious outcry from the Sweden Democrats. Björn Söder, one of the SD’s top leaders and their candidate to become the new speaker in parliament, accused SVT of broadcasting “pure propaganda”. The public service broadcaster should be reported for bias and “fundamentally reformed”, he said.

Barely 48 hours after the polling stations closed, here was the SD with the gloves off, gunning for one of the party’s traditional enemies – journalists. 

In 2016, Linus Bylund, now the party’s chief of staff, called journalists “enemies of the people”. On election night, Bylund joked that he was looking forward to “a lot of what we like to call ‘journalist rugby’” – pushing journalists around, he explained. When Aftonbladet columnist Peter Kadhammar visited the SD stronghold of Hörby in 2020 and asked to read the town council’s official diary – a legal democratic right – two SD goons followed him and sat, arms folded, to intimidate him while he worked.

SD critics of the mainstream media have supporters inside the other right-wing parties that make up the loose electoral bloc that is on the verge of taking power. On Tuesday morning, Gunnar Axen, a venture capitalist and for 16 years a member of parliament for the Moderate party, tweeted: “A piece of advice to the Moderates and SD before the government negotiations regarding ‘public service’: A cancerous tumour is operated on completely, you leave nothing behind because then it starts to grow again.”

Söder’s outburst against the media should be a concern to anyone who consumes journalism in Sweden and relies on journalists to provide them with accurate information on which to lead their lives. But it also raises a bigger issue: to what extent will the party be prepared to compromise in the event that negotiations take place with the three other right-wing parties about forming a new government?

The Financial Times was one of the few foreign media allowed into the SD’s valvaka election vigil party on election night (The Local’s application for press accreditation was rejected). Its reporter Richard Milne wrote: “One word was on the lips of many Sweden Democrats MPs who spoke to the Financial Times: ‘It is revenge,” said Henrik Vinge, deputy leader. Linus Bylund, its chief of staff, added: ‘It is revenge because the other parties have treated us badly — even the three [rightwing] parties on our side.’”

It is easy to forget what it has cost SD politicians personally to get where they are today, and therefore how determined they are to pursue their ideological goals. Leading members have made sacrifices, they were in the movement when it was acceptable to make fun of them and even beat them up. Some have lost their positions or even their jobs for being SD members. Whether you think this was right or not, they have been isolated and bullied by the media and other Swedish institutions.

“These are investments that they have made, and they will not immediately become politically fatigued in negotiations, they are in it for the long term,” one experienced SD-watcher told me this week.

However, the SD have also seen what has happened to other, similar parties in the Nordic countries, and particularly the Danish People’s Party, whose role in propping up a minority conservative government has seen its support fall through the floor.

At the same time, in the municipalities it has controlled, the SD have behaved responsibly and generally stayed away from enacting hardcore policies. Moreover, this approach has seen its share of the vote grow by between 4 and 10 percentage points in all of these towns, which might have taught it that the softly softly approach works.

The election literature I received from my local SD was all about cuddly local issues and mentioned immigration only once – in sharp contrast to the election leaflet from the SD’s national arm.

Will the party take a similar softly, softly approach now it has the chance for power on the national stage, or will it want to show the full extent of its new political power and throw its weight around? If that includes taking revenge on the mainstream political parties and the media, be prepared for fireworks.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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