He chose Sweden as a refuge. It may turn out to be his undoing

Katrine Kielos reports from the land the WikiLeaks founder thought would be safe
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sweden was Julian Assange's dream country. Until it turned on him.

He arrived in August to a country with a long history of freedom-of-information legislation and guaranteed anonymity for sources. Besides, he said, it is peaceful and the weather is nice. His organisation was also guaranteed a quiet place to work.

The nuclear bunker still goes by its military code name: Peony White Mountains. The steel doors are 1.64ft thick. The bunker can withstand a near hit by a hydrogen bomb and back-up power is handled by two Maybach MTU diesel engines originally designed for German submarines.

If you are going to reveal a quarter of a million diplomatic cables that the most powerful government in the world does not want you to reveal, this must seem like a good place.

And not just for the physical security. In 1766 the world's first freedom-of-information legislation was adopted by the Swedish parliament. Key achievements include the abolition of political censorship and allowing public access to government documents.

So it was here, below 30 metres of granite under the Sofia Church in Södermalm (the area of Stockholm where all the good guys in Stieg Larsson's books live), that the WikiLeaks' servers could be found. Mr Assange must have felt really safe in Sweden.

The Swedish financial crisis peaked in 1992. Two years later, the Social Democratic government took power aiming to balance the budget. Massive spending cuts had to be followed by investment in the future. Households were given the right to buy computers on preferential terms through their employers and almost immediately 80 per cent of the population had access to a computer at home. Today Sweden leads the world in tech usage.

Those rights are defended strongly. In 2006 the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laila Freivalds, was forced to resign after criticism about her involvement in closing down an internet site. Three years later the Pirate Party shocked the Swedish establishment by taking 7.1 per cent of the votes and one of the country's 18 seats in the European Parliament. The Pirate Party strives to reform copyright laws, right to privacy and transparency of state administration. Mr Assange must have felt comfortable in Sweden.

To ensure that he was covered by Swedish law to protect his sources, Mr Assange needed to register with the authorities as editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. That was why he was in Sweden.

He gave a talk at the Swedish trade union confederation three days after he arrived. He wore a grey suit, white shirt and a dark tie. The chamber was full.

He said: Sweden is critical to our work and we are supported both by the Swedish people and Swedish law. On 18 August he applied for residence and work permits. Two days later he was accused of molestation, unlawful coercion and rape.

The WikiLeaks publisher had not even denied the rape accusations before conspiracy theories began to flow on the internet: it was a honey trap and the CIA had probably been playing the Swedish state like a helpless puppet.

Sweden found itself in the middle of a global cyber war, and just as Mr Assange had so confidently stated in his lecture that summer: "The first casualty of war is always the truth."

Mr Assange was not arrested because he is suspected of "sex by surprise" or because his contraception failed mid-coitus. Sweden does not have a "broken condom" law. A 2010 report by Amnesty International notes that victim-blaming in rape cases is as alive in Sweden as in the United States. As a result, neither rapes within intimate relationships nor "date rapes" generally lead to legal action.

"I don't know if what Assange did was illegal or if that was only the women's experience of the situation, however the case shows that the price of talking about these issues is insanely high," journalist Johanna Koljonen wrote on Twitter.

Although the Swedish prosecutor's handling of the Assange case has seemed confusing at times, claims from figures like John Pilger that Sweden "should be ashamed" have left the country baffled. How can people be so sure about the lack of fairness of the Swedish justice system without having any insight into the ongoing investigation?

Even the leader of the Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge, said he has not seen anything to indicate that the case against Mr Assange is politically motivated. When Mr Assange was released from a British prison this week he told reporters that he is not worried about going to Sweden to face the allegations. He is worried about being extradited to the US.

Diplomatic sources have claimed that there have been contacts between Swedish and US authorities. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, has denied this.

For the centre-right Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, being drawn into the Assange case in any way would be a political nightmare. Mr Reinfeldt's government faced its biggest crisis so far when it pushed a controversial bill through parliament in 2008 allowing all emails and phone calls to be monitored in the name of national security. The bill was slammed as an attack on civil liberties, the vote became one of the most divisive and many commentators thought Mr Reinfeldt's position would never recover.

If Sweden were to extradite Mr Assange to the US, Mr Reinfeldt would have to face the same debate about civil liberties that nearly brought his government down.

Comments