Special Report

27 July 2012

Sex, Spooks and Wikileaks: Assange and Swedish justice

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Pillow talk: Examined and passed - "playing fast and loose with the issue of consensuality". Image: Ali Bell
27 July 2012

OPINION: Ali Bell, who lives in Stockholm, sheds some light for her fellow Kiwis on the Julian Assange case from the point of view of Sweden and TV spy thrillers

Ali Bell, who lives in Stockholm, sheds some light for her fellow Kiwis on the Julian Assange case from the point of view of Sweden and TV spy thrillers.

OPINION: I have been asked so many times by folk in New Zealand what Swedes make of the Assange case, I thought it would be clarifying to put it together in an article, but crystal clear it isn't. “The truth” might be out there but nowhere I can swear by.

So much of what is reported is speculation, rumour and online leaks, following it is like following a plot more convoluted than an episode of TV's Spooks, with just as many possible inside governmental plots and backstage international alliances, with attractive “stock characters” as sexy Swedish female patsies or (least likely) honeytrapping spies, and with secrecy in every phonecall nook and governmental-memo cranny.

Thrown in to boot – a momentous hot potato like Wikileaks but with a hard-to-warm-to protagonist, and on top of all this a sexual-crimes case that has us all gobsmacked (including at least one of the victims) and set it in one of the most socio-politically idealistic but judicially flawed countries in the Western world – it would be an enthralling TV show indeed.  24  (or in this case 23 months and counting) eat your heart out.

But it hasn't been 24 hours, and we are getting media fatigue – I know I am – from the case. How long can Assange hang out in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after all?

No Swede I have talked to believes this rape/sex crimes charge comes from a genuine wish to clean up the world for women's sexual safety. (Rapes in Sweden can be as difficult as other Western countries to get a conviction for.)

Everyone mentions the timing of the charges as being far too convenient (in order to get Assange into custody here), and no-one doubts, erroneously or not, that the Swedes intend to hand him over to the Americans and that Assange has every reason to fear this.

It must be noted that the public prosecutor in charge of this case vehemently denies that this is Sweden's intention.

Leaks everywhere
What we do know is there were leaks everywhere – and not just from Assange's condoms.

This is how I know from the official police transcript from the post-incident interview that both women said the sex was consensual – it was possible STDs (specifically the big HIV) they were worried about due to Assange's, shall we say, sexual sloppiness around the use and non-use of condoms (the reason a broken condom is being used as evidence), holding one of them down before consensual sex, and his playing fast and loose with the issue of consensuality – ie. that at least one of his sex-partners was not awake to indicate she wanted it (a crime in Sweden): It's out on the internet for all to read.

Complete, most horribly, with the women's names – a terrible breach of rape-case protocol, and subjects these women to harassment and internet vilification – before it even gets to court. (No plant or spook would be so exposed, surely? Or have such terrible work conditions!)

These are real women with real lives, before and since.

At the point of the police interview is when other judicial forces got seriously involved, with subsequently leaked information showing the transcript went missing, and then had to be rewritten.

After that there were further delays and retractions of charges, and then a change of public proscecutor and the rape charge reinstated.

This is where, if you were watching it as a TV spy thriller, you would maybe go out to pour yourself another beer and put on the popcorn – the plot just gets twistier and twistier.

There are a few things it's good to know about Sweden to fully understand its role in the Assange case.

First of all:

The horrors of being 'häktad' – in jail without bail
"Being in custody in Sweden on suspicion of committing a crime means you can be locked up for quite a long time while the police and prosecutors investigate your case." Image: Ali Bell/PMCHere there are no juries of your peers, or bail (a post-colonial heritage from Great Britain.)  Here, in place of a jury, are people politically appointed – yes – get your head around that one.

And as I have delicately pointed out to fellow foreigners in the pub – beware of getting arrested and pissing off the police, and definitely a public prosecutor – the system of being 'häktad' (being in custody on suspicion of committing a crime) means you can be locked up, in isolation what's more, for quite a long time while the police and prosecutors, ah, investigate your case.

It's not supposed to go on for longer than 2 weeks but it all too often does – in one recent case a father of two was 'häktad', in isolation, for a year before being freed, not guilty.

And yes, Sweden does get into trouble with the United Nations over this – something about a violation of human rights. But at least in Sweden prison food is quite good apparently and the beds comfortable. I don't know if that makes Assange feel any better but I don't think so.

"Sweden does get into trouble with the United Nations over this – something about a violation of human rights." Image: Ali Bell/PMCSecondly:

Sexual egalitarianism
Women can be held in genuinely high-esteem here, in sexual encounters and in life in general. But  even in Sweden, where men wear coloured jeans and sheep aren't nervous– this country, like any, would look very different if men were arrested, not to mention extradited, and locked up for being pigs in the boudoir.

At my most glib I ask why no-one warned these two women before they went off with him?

As surely every Kiwi woman knows – Aussie blokes can be crass, so if you want to sleep without fear of unagreed-to penetration – at least kick him out before bedtime, and certainly before breakfast.

On the face of it, apparently, it all started when the two women who had taken Assange into their arms compared notes and noted that this man was seriously wanting in the sexual safety and condom arena, not to mention interpersonal skills.

Apparently they wanted to force him to have himself checked out for HIV and told a police friend who in turn told a public prosecutor who convinced them to charge and the rest is history.

At least one of the women, apparently, during the police interview was appalled that Assange was going to be charged with rape.

Last but not least:

Sweden as the 51st/52nd/53rd state of America
A joke much bandied about is that Sweden is standing in line with Britain and Australia (maybe Kim Dotcom would say New Zealand as well) waiting to become part of the USA, which can be reflected in a postulated overzealous tendency to ship hapless foreigners off someplace at the behest of the Americans.

So, the most simple Swedish plot synopsis? That the authorities have taken over a genuine concern for sexual health and responsibilty and turned it into a charge for which Assange has to come back into the country, and where he will be 'häktad' until the Americans come and get him. (I like logical plots even though the plot of Spooks is often not so simple.)

But like in any good TV spy thriller, even with a convoluted storyline, we wait for the end of the show, and for any new twist in the plot, or, even a last minute surprise.


Swedish law gives shelter to controversial Wikileaks site

Julian Assange rape accusations timeline (Telegraph)

The history of the honey trap

For Assange, home comforts inside Ecuadorian embassy

Article (in Swedish) on acquital rates of rape cases rising

Audit: 'serious problems' in Swedish legal system (TheLocal.se)

Sveriges domstolar – Swedish courts (Swedish site in English)

The public prosecutor in charge of this case vehemently denies that this is Sweden's intention. (in Swedish)

'Lay judges' (rather than a jury)  – Wikipedia

Hård kritik mot långa häkningstider skånsen.se (in Swedish) Harsh criticism against long-remand-in-prison times

TV4 news clip on Criticism of long-remand-in-prison times (in Swedish) Richard Maarleveld case of one year in isolation remand in prison

Isolation in prison: risk of abuse of rights SvD (in Swedish)



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Ali Bell

BroadsWord columnist

Ali Bell is a freelance teacher, writer, editor and journalism graduate from AUT University.