Why Assange Should Welcome Extradition to Sweden

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sweden on Monday reopened its rape investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. If past practice is any indication, there’s a high probability that, if extradited to Sweden from the U.K., he wouldn’t be convicted. And then the U.S., which wants Assange on charges of stealing government documents, would need to try its luck seeking extradition in the Swedish justice system.

The phenomenon of “attrition” in rape cases is well-known to researchers. To start with, far from all incidents are reported to the police. Then fewer and fewer cases remain after each stage of the legal process. A 2009 review of research in this field in five English-speaking countries showed that in the U.S., for example, 67% of rape and attempted rape charges result in a conviction; that rate drops to about 50% in the U.K. and Canada. But it takes time, effort and often determination on the victim’s part for those charges to be leveled. Kathleen Daly and Brigitte Bouhours of Griffith University in Australia, who performed the review, estimated the average conviction rate in the five countries at 15% of reported cases.

Some advocacy groups claim that the majority of rapes aren’t reported, so this kind of conviction rate means almost all offenders — 995 of 1,000 in the U.S., according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network — walk free. Sweden, though, is remarkable for a high percentage of reported rape cases: The country historically has a broader definition of rape than most others. And given a higher than average trust in law enforcement, victims often — more often than elsewhere — go to the police without fear. In some 92% of reported cases, an investigation commences, suggesting a low early-stage attrition rate.

But the actual rape conviction rate in Sweden is low. In 2016, the latest year for which data are available from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, convictions resulted from about 12% of reported rape cases. For all sex offenses, the conviction rate is even lower — about 5% in 2017, although this particular data point is likely affected by a spike in reported sexual offenses that year.

A Swedish woman accused Assange of rape after a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm in 2010. He has claimed the sex was consensual and wrote in an affidavit that the Swedish authorities may have proceeded with the charge for political reasons. He has also claimed that the woman in question didn’t want to press rape charges — an assertion contradicted in a tweet last month by the woman’s lawyer, who described Assange’s arrest in London as an event she and her client had been “waiting and hoping for since 2012.”

Whatever the facts of the case, the events in question took place almost a decade ago. They won’t fall under Sweden’s new rape law that considers any sex act without express consent as rape: It only went into effect last year. It also is harder to prosecute cases that occurred so long ago. And practice points to an increased reluctance of Swedish courts to convict people of rape: The number of such convictions has dropped 21% between 2007 and 2016, while the number of reported rapes went up by 23% between 2008 and 2016. Amnesty International wrote in 2016 that this reluctance may be explained by a 2009 ruling of the Swedish Supreme Court that ordered a more rigorous assessment of the credibility of a complainant’s testimony.

In other words, if Assange is handed over to Sweden and charged with rape, his chances of acquittal would be relatively high, if the trial is free from political influences. Contrary to Assange’s fears, such influence is highly unlikely. The World Justice Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, ranks Sweden fourth in the world in its Rule of Law Index, with especially high marks for due process and rights of the accused. The U.S. is ranked 20th and the U.K. 12th.

On the basis of all this, if the U.K. extradites Assange at all, it would probably be better for him to be sent to Sweden than the U.S. If he can defend himself against the rape charges before what’s likely to be an impartial court bound by strong evidentiary standards, he’ll very likely still face a U.S. extradition demand. But then he’ll be able to fight it as a free man, not from a jail cell. And he’ll fight it in a country ranked third in the world for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, compared with 33rd-ranked U.K.

When possible rape charges present an opportunity, that’s hardly a good situation for anyone to be in. But Assange should be allowed to try to clear himself of the Swedish accusations before the U.S. gets hold of him. If Sweden — a neutral country with strong protections for journalists and that’s not a U.S. military ally — eventually hands him over to American justice, then he probably can’t win anywhere except a few nations that would be willing to shelter him for political reasons.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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