Assange legal drama enters new phase | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.11.2016
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Assange legal drama enters new phase

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is set to be questioned by a Swedish lawyer in his London asylum. This means the grounds for the existing warrant against him will no longer apply, but he still won't be safe from arrest.

The email affair that dogged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the recent US election played a large part in the triumph of her Republican opponent Donald Trump. The scandal can be traced to a six-story apartment building in the exclusive London district of Knightsbridge, the raised ground floor of which houses the Ecuadorian embassy.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has spent the past four years here in asylum. For months the disclosure website put pressure on Hillary Clinton by feeding a constant flow of information into the public domain. In mid-October the Ecuadorian embassy cut its guest's access to the Internet, presumably at the United States' request.

However, WikiLeaks does not consist of Julian Assange alone. The revelations continued. On the day of the election, Julian Assange declared that neither he nor WikiLeaks had any interest in influencing the result in any way, especially as both Trump and Clinton were extremely hostile to whistleblowers. But he said WikiLeaks' job was to publish material if it was authentic and of news value. This, he said, was undoubtedly the case with the documents from the Clinton camp. The 45-year-old Australian claimed that WikiLeaks would have loved to have published documents about Trump and his team as well, had they been sent any.

Six-year investigation

Right now, though, Julian Assange's agenda is dominated by something else entirely. On Monday, Stockholm's chief prosecutor, Ingrid Isgren, accompanied by a Swedish police officer, will walk down Basil Street, past the solidarity vigil being organized by Assange's supporters and into the Ecuadorian embassy. There she will question Julian Assange about the rape accusation that has dogged him for the past six years, despite the fact that no charges have been brought.

This interrogation, a step forward after years of standoff, is part of an investigation that began in 2010. The case was in fact closed by a state prosecutor in Stockholm in August 2010, on the grounds that it was not possible to establish that a crime had been committed. However, Marianne Ny, a state prosecutor from Göteborg, took the case up again.

What needs to be understood is that Swedish law governing sexual offenses is unusually broad. The woman whose statements form the basis of the preliminary investigation at no time felt threatened by Assange: There was never any talk of violence. It was enough for her to say that on a night in which they had already had sex, he penetrated her again while she was half-asleep - without using a condom. When the woman visited a Stockholm police station in August 2010, she was seeking information on how she could make Assange take an AIDS test.

Fears of extradition to the US

The European arrest warrant under which Assange was detained in England, more than 2,160 days ago, is intended only to make it possible for representatives of the Swedish justice system to question him. Once he has been questioned, the grounds for this arrest warrant would automatically cease to apply.

Deutschland PK Wikileaks in Berlin (Reuters/A. Schmidt)

Melinda Taylor, lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, attends a press conference on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary celebration of WikiLeaks in Berlin, Germany, October 4, 2016.

However, Assange still won't feel safe. His lawyer, Melinda Taylor, emphasized in an interview with DW that the Swedish proceedings were not the reason why Assange had sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy: "He's in the embassy because neither Sweden nor Great Britain were prepared to guarantee that they would not extradite him to the US. This risk still exists, independent of the questioning or the European arrest warrant." Taylor believes it is possible that, in the weeks remaining to it, the outgoing US government will step up its efforts to have Assange arrested.

Julian Assange has still not officially been charged in the United States with any crime. However, numerous documents attest to the fact that the US justice ministry has been investigating Assange and WikiLeaks for the past six years. In the interim, the alleged informer Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail for passing classified information to WikiLeaks. Manning is believed to have leaked the so-called "Afghan War Diary," the "Iraq War Diary," and the "Embassy Cables," internal US administration documents published by WikiLeaks in 2010.

Taylor's concerns about the long arm of the USA are apparently justified. Nikolaos Gazeas, a Cologne-based expert in international law, told DW that not only was there an extensive extradition request, a so-called request for arrest was also a possibility. This, he explained, could be implemented very quickly and without much bureaucracy. Gazeas said he could well imagine "that the Americans have such a request in a drawer, ready to put in the fax machine at any time."

Placing hope in Trump

Social media is now buzzing with appeals to US president-elect Donald Trump to pardon Assange. Melinda Taylor said it would certainly be helpful if the new US administration were to change current policy regarding whistleblowers. She commented that not only her client, Assange, but others like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, too, had played a valuable role in disseminating important information - in the public interest. "Whistleblowers must be protected," the lawyer insisted.

Italien Bronzeskulptur in Perguia (DW/M. Bierbach)

Bronze sculptures of whistleblowers Snowden, Assange and Manning in Perugia, Italy

The journalist Charles Glass, who specializes in the Middle East, told DW that Obama's record in this regard was grim. "The Obama administration has prosecuted more journalists than all previous administrations combined. It has been using the espionage act of 1917, which was a wartime measure by another ostensibly liberal president, Woodrow Wilson, not to prosecute spies, but to prosecute journalists who have been exposing what the Obama administration has been doing in terms of torture, murder, rendering suspects around the world. Obviously Obama does not want these things exposed, and it is the duty of a free press to expose them."

Glass is an activist in support of whistleblowers: In the summer of 2015 he initiated a tour of European cities where bronze statues of Assange, Snowden and Manning were displayed, reminding people of their fates.