STOCKHOLM – Julian Assange’s bizarre bid for political asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London has claimed headlines everywhere, but it has obscured an important truth: Last month’s decision by the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court that Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual crimes was the only possible outcome. To reject the European Arrest Warrant issued by Swedish authorities — would have signaled distrust of Sweden’s legal system, which would have been unfair.
Whatever one’s sentiments about Assange and the claims that he has made in trying to secure asylum in Ecuador, let us be very clear: Sweden is a Rechtstaat — a state governed by the rule of law — in every sense. The Swedish court system is characterized by foreseeability, fairness, humanism, and high professional quality. These are facts.
Yet this description fits poorly with the image of the Swedish legal system that has dominated the debate since the allegations against Assange became public. Indeed, Assange and his supporters have portrayed Sweden’s legal system as a wilderness of injustice and political corruption.
This caricature has become a problem for Sweden. When influential people — filmmaker Michael Moore, feminist Naomi Wolf, journalist John Pilger, and many others — launch attacks on the Swedish legal system, it affects the country’s democratic reputation. And, unfortunately, the caricature has been allowed to dominate impressions of Sweden, because representatives of its legal system and other Swedish experts have failed to provide a more accurate picture.
When I travel abroad and meet lawyers interested in the Assange case (and they are many), I get asked the most incredible questions about Sweden’s legal system. Is it true that men are convicted of rape in Sweden on the sole basis of a woman’s allegations? Is it rape in Sweden when a condom breaks? Is it correct that Swedish judges contact the United States Justice Department before passing judgment in politically sensitive cases?
The list goes on. Did the Swedish prosecutor-general meet with representatives of the U.S. Embassy before the European Arrest Warrant in the Assange case was issued? Are judges selected by political appointment? Is it true that official Sweden is steeped in feminist ideology, and that Swedish public servants are taught that women never lie? Will the Swedish police put Assange on a plane to Guantanamo Bay as soon as he arrives?
The answer to all of these questions is “no,” though a couple of them point to half-truths. Let me return to these later on. Before turning to them, let us recall what actually happened in the Assange case.
Assange came to Sweden in 2010 as a spokesperson for WikiLeaks. Ironically, one of the reasons for his visit was Sweden’s good legal reputation; he came to investigate whether WikiLeaks could benefit from the unique protection afforded to information under our constitutional free-speech guarantees.
During Assange’s stay, two events occurred that led to accusations against him for sexual assault of two women. Before Assange was interrogated, he left the country. He then refused to return to Sweden, starting an almost two-year process to extradite him.
The U.K. Supreme Court’s decision means only that Assange will be transferred to Sweden for interrogation. It does not mean that he will be tried, or even charged. It is entirely possible that he will be transferred to Sweden, questioned, and released if the Swedish authorities find that there are insufficient grounds for prosecution. It is impossible — as it should be — to predict how the case will unfold.
What we do know is that Assange will receive fair treatment by Swedish legal institutions. And, yes, their respect for the rule of law extends to accusations of sexual offenses. As recently as a few years ago, the Swedish Supreme Court explicitly ruled that the same high standard of proof applied to other criminal allegations are to be applied in cases of suspected rape.
Similar criticisms of the Swedish legal system are based largely on myths and misconceptions. The framework of Sweden’s criminal law with respect to sexual offenses is no different from most other countries’. I will not be sentenced for rape if my condom breaks during a sexual act. But, like in many other countries, I can be convicted of rape if I have sex with a sleeping or unconscious person.
The Swedish judges who may preside if Assange is brought to trial will not take orders from any government agencies, and will not be influenced by pressure from elsewhere. Corruption in the Swedish judiciary is extremely low.
We do have politically appointed laypersons as judges (similar to jurors) — a system about which I am critical — but they do not act as politicians in their judicial function, and studies suggest that their political beliefs do not influence their judgments at all.
Finally, no, the Swedish police did not place Assange on a CIA-chartered plane as soon as he arrived at Stockholm airport. They, like all other Swedish authorities, discharged their duties according to the law.
Marten Schultz is a professor of law at Stockholm University. © 2012 Project Syndicate