I have enough experience of the Swedish legal system to know its poor treatment of suspects marks them out as guilty
The Julian Assange case has sparked international criticism of the Swedish legal system. Many Swedish citizens view this criticism as an attack on their country, and rally to the defence of their legal system. But it is about time that someone with experience of Swedish procedural law tells it like it is: Sweden routinely imposes severe restrictions on suspects held on remand. Pre-trial, suspects are often held in detention, or even in isolation. This treatment is unnecessary and humiliating and thwarts the defendant’s ability to prepare their case.
Detaining and isolating a suspect is appropriate where the crime is sufficiently grave and the indication of guilt clear. Treating Anders Breivik in this way is the right thing to do, for instance.
The allegations against Assange, in contrast, are not nearly so serious, but a case of “he said, she said”. Let us also not forget that Assange has not been charged with any crime, and that the allegations against him were at first dismissed by a Swedish prosecutor.
In August 2010, Assange was interviewed by the police for the first time, then released. A month later, the prosecutor requested an additional police interrogation be held, insisting this time that it be done with Assange behind bars. She called for Assange’s arrest, issued a European arrest warrant and ordered that he be deported from the UK. Stockholm district court and the Svea court of appeal upheld her request and arrested Assange in absentia.
Neither Assange nor I can understand the motivation. Why couldn’t the second police interview be conducted with Assange at liberty? Assange is not a Swedish citizen. He does not reside in Sweden. His work has worldwide impact and he must be able to travel freely to accomplish this. He would happily have presented himself for interrogation and, had the case gone to trial, willingly returned to Sweden to face charges. All this could have been done while he remained at liberty. Had Sweden handled the case in this way, the issue would have been resolved a long time ago.
Instead, Sweden insists on Assange’s forcible removal to Sweden. Once there, he will immediately be seized by police and put in jail. He will be taken to the detention hearing in handcuffs, and will almost certainly be detained. He will remain in custody for the duration of the proceedings. This is unnecessary. The prosecutor is at liberty to withdraw the arrest warrant and lift the detention order, and a hearing in Sweden could be arranged very quickly. The prosecutor could also arrange a hearing in the UK or at the Swedish embassy in London.
This treatment is degrading. No one should be treated as guilty until proven innocent. There has been no trial, let alone conviction. Assange has not even been charged with any crime. And the situation makes it difficult for him to prepare his defence. If a defendant is placed in isolation they are allowed contact only with their defence lawyer. The prosecutor and complainants, however, can confer at length with witnesses and work out their strategies. Is there any acceptable reason why one of the parties be deprived of that opportunity?
Sweden has been criticised for its overuse of detention and isolation – and not only by Assange and his supporters. The UN committee against torture in 2008 strongly criticised conditions in Sweden’s remand prisons, and Swedish courts, for the fact that prison restrictions, such as isolation, are imposed on 42% of detained suspects.
The chief prosecutor has said that Assange will not be held in isolation. However, even without that being imposed, prison restrictions have become much harsher and more widespread in recent years. In reality the rules in the remand prisons make it impossible for a suspect to have proper contact with the outside world: there are not enough landline telephones, mobile phones are banned, letters are often censored, and to meet people you have to fill in application forms that can take weeks to process.
The treatment that the Swedish legal system has inflicted, and would be likely to inflict on Assange would mark him out as guilty and prevent him from preparing a proper defence and, for that reason, having a fair trial.