In the summer of 2010, Julian Assange went to Sweden. The servers which host the main Wikileaks website are based there: in August 2010, the primary host seems to have switched from PRQ to Bahnhof. Bahnof servers are based in a former nuclear bunker.
In August 2010, on two separate occasions, Assange met with and stayed one night/several nights with a woman supporter of Wikileaks. Each woman says that the arrangement to have sex was by mutual consent: each woman says that she had stipulated Assange should use a condom. The two women discovered afterwards that Assange had behaved like a boor with each of them: fighting and disputing and trying to bully her out of her stipulation. Assange had achieved his goal of penetrative sex without a condom with both women: In one instance, Assange claimed the condom had “ripped” and so he had been unaware that there was now no condom: in the other, he waited the next morning until she had fallen asleep, and then got inside her when she couldn’t actually say no. The two women took this to the police, and asked if Assange could be made to take a HIV test. None of these facts are disputed by Assange or his lawyers.
What the two women have described in both instances is the behaviour of a bully and a sex pest. As the Swedish state prosecutor realised when she read the second woman’s account, Assange screwing her while she was asleep knowing that she had not consented to sex without a condom, was rape in Swedish law (and in the UK, too). Other actions by Assange that they describe were sexual molestation.
Assange doesn’t appear to have taken any of this seriously. Asked about the alleged crimes, he said that the women had been “generous” to him, and women were often “generous” to him but that these two had “got into a tizzy” about having unprotected sex. Assange appears to have been utterly convinced that he did nothing wrong – but, although he had applied for a permit of permanent residence in Sweden, he went to the UK, and didn’t come back when requested by the police to be questioned. He was not charged with the crimes, because the Swedish process is for the person accused to be questioned by the police and to be charged in the process of questioning – in the UK, both in English & in Scottish law, a person can be charged before questioning, so the charge comes much earlier in the system.
Julian Assange’s defenders have consistently made much of the fact that Assange was never charged and that the two women never accused him of rape: both are true, but the reason Assange was never charged was because he never went back to Sweden: he wanted the Swedish constitutional protection for WIkileaks, but he had no wish to be involved with police questioning, legal charges, and possibly a court trial for sexual assault and rape – especially as, though he knew he had bullied and forced two women into having bareback sex against their clearly expressed wishes, he didn’t think this was anything wrong.
Sweden has no better a track record than the UK does for rape/sexual assault conviction. The evidence in both cases would have been purely her word against his. That Assange didn’t dispute the facts and expressed no remorse for his actions might have told against him: but it might not. Assange evidently simply didn’t wish to be entangled in legal bureaucracy for something he regarded as a minor incident – women who might have had to be induced to be “generous” to him, but had nothing to complain about really. He stayed in the UK.
Assange appears to have been initially convinced that the legal case for this trival matter would end when he refused to be extradited and appealed against the decision, claiming what he had done was not a crime. Then, when the Swedish prosecutors refused to drop the case and Assange kept losing his appeals, he seems to have been convinced of something much more dangerous.
Assange seemed to have started to believe that as the incident of his pestering and forcing two women was so trivial, it could not possibly be why he was wanted in Sweden. Therefore, there must be another reason, and the most obvious reason to Assange and his fans was that really, this was a secret US plot: the Swedish state intended to hand him over to the US.
This was, I say moderately, absolute nonsense.
At the time, in 2010-2012, the US government would certainly have liked to arrest Assange and put him on trial for his supposed crimes against the state by Wikileaks, but they had immense difficulty in finding a crime with which to charge him. He was in the position of a publisher. A publisher in the US, as in Sweden, is very much protected against legal action by the state. The crime Robert Mueller came up with to charge Assange with was that Assange had not merely received the notorious huge leak of classified files from Chelsea Manning, he had helped the young soldier access and download them. I have no idea if this is true or not: Chelsea Manning declines to give evidence.
Sweden had a much stronger track record against handing people wanted by the US over to the US government, judiciary or state, than the UK does. (The one instance of Sweden being involved in the US’s unlawful rendition of people the US claimed were terrorists, was of two refugees who were handed to Egypt at the US’s request in December 2001. This was an appalling action, justly condemned: but it didn’t fit Assange’s case in the slightest, and by 2010, the Swedish government had already been compelled by domestic and international condemnation to set in place legal protections against it happening again.) In 2010, Assange was so sure Sweden would not deport him to the US that he had applied for permanent residency there.
The various appeals Assange made against extradition to Sweden went on: Assange had got bail by various friends and was living in reasonable freedom as a friend’s house guest, required to return there each night and to report regularly to the police. His last appeal to the supreme court was lost in May 2012: he was advised he would be extradited to Sweden within a few weeks.
Had Assange accepted this and gone to Sweden, various things might have happened. The Swedish judiciary would have questioned him, would most likely have charged him, and he might have had to face a trial. The jury might have found him guilty on some, none, or all of the charges. The maximum length of sentence for rape in Sweden in 5 years, with the usual early release for good behaviour. At worst, then, Assange would have been released from prison in June 2017, and most likely, earlier – quite possibly, even in time for Wikileaks to accept the leaked Democratic Party documents which Wikileaks then published to affect the results of the 2016 Presidential election.
Instead, Assange – who had, it seems, convinced himself that Sweden could not possibly want him just for those trivial “generous” actions in 2010, this must be a cover for something much more dangerous – jumped bail and went to live in the Ecuador embassy in Knightsbridge, the then-President of Ecuador having offered Assange asylum.
And that is why Assange is in prison today.
Sweden’s judiciary allows a five-year statute of limitations on sexual assault, a ten-year statute of limitations on rape. Assange may have had the idea that he would outwait the statutes of limitations in the embassy – after all, he would still have access to the internet, and most of his real work was done online. His lawyers would still be free to act. That he had voluntarily confined himself to conditions far worse – but with internet access – than in a Swedish prison, didn’t seem to bother him at the time.
Assange’s friends who had put up bail for him had to pay it, and Assange was then in a different kind of legal situation. Sweden would eventually – as they eventually did – give up trying to extradite him for the crimes he had evaded by leaving the country and then hiding out in a foreign embassy in London. But bail avoidance is a crime for which in English law there is no statute of limitations, and while the penalty can be a fine, in this instance – as the years of avoidance dragged on and on – any English court would almost certainly impose prison time.
And while the rape and sexual assault charges depended on witness evidence, he-said she-said, Assange was indubitably guilty of jumping bail, even if he tried to call it “asylum”. The government of Ecuador accepted his claim of asylum, and the embassy staff simply had to put up with it: Assange never left the flat in which they worked. Once the statute of limitations expired on the sexual assault charges, and the Swedish judiciary had wearily conceded they weren’t treating this fugitive from justice as an active investigation any more, Julian Assange’s lawyers tried very hard to make the English legal system just drop the bail avoidance charge, apparently on the reasoning that as Assange had now successfully evaded justice on the charges for which he should have been extradited, it would be mean of the English judiciary to impose a criminal charge on the successful evasion of justice.
Assange and his fans began to spin a fantasy which Assange may himself have believed – I wouldn’t care to imagine his mental state after so many years of voluntary but unwelcome confinement, without access to any healthcare or any real social interaction – that he was imprisoned in the flat, not – as the plain fact was – there voluntarily and able to leave at any time.
This might still be continuing, if not for another political factor. The President of Ecuador who had liked and supported Assange – and evidently agreed with Assange that treating women as Assange had was a minor and trivial thing – was not available for re-election in May 2017. Assange had, naturally enough, supported that President’s attempt to abolish term limits, which failed, and a different man was now the head of state in Ecuador. The asylum claim was honoured: Assange was not immediately evicted. But, citing evidence that Assange had been hosting hackers who had interfered in Ecuador democracy, the new President of Ecuador withdrew Assange’s access to the internet, denied him visitors, and – after the Mueller Report when the US judiciary had finally found something they could criminally charge Assange with – withdrew the asylum protection and Assange was evicted from the Ecuador embassy at last, and promptly arrested for bail avoidance.
The US can far more easily and legally extradite people from the UK than they can from almost any other country in the world Legislation was passed in 2003 to make it extra easy for the US to extradite people from the UK. Assange would have known this in 2010, but in the UK, he wasn’t wanted for charges of rape and sexual assault, so it didn’t seem to bother him then.
But, once Assange’s sentence for bail avoidance was done with, because there was an action in process against him by the US and the UK government doesn’t buck the US government, Assange could be held on the US legal action. He could not get bail, because no one convicted on bail avoidance would ever be granted bail again. He is therefore still in the same local prison in South London which the local court sentenced him to for bail avoidance.
And while it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for someone who is the target of the US government in this way, it is worth noting that Julian Assange would not be in this position today if he had stayed in Sweden in 2010, been questioned by the police, and offered his own explanation of the actions the women accused him of. He might not have been charged: if charged, he might not have been convicted: if convicted, he would – at worst – have been out of prison in September 2015. But he opted to flee justice. He is now experiencing some rather horrible consequences because he made the decision, in autumn 2010, that it was not worth his bothering to treat the accusations of rape and sexual assault as serious matters: the two women had been “generous” to him, and that was, in his view, no crime at all.
Julian Assange is a rather horrible person under rather horrible circumstances. But anyone who claims that he is in prison for being the founder of Wikileaks is wrong: he is in prison today because, ten years ago, he thought he shouldn’t be charged with rape and sexual assault just because he had bullied and harassed two women into having penetrative sex with him without their consent.
And that will still be true, even if Donald Trump pardons him.