False Charges Ricochet
in the War on WikiLeaks
by Scott Horton
his weekend, the controversies surrounding WikiLeaks took another strange turn. Late on Friday, the Swedish newspaper Expressen disclosed
that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was the subject of an arrest
warrant arising out of charges by two female witnesses that he had raped
them within a three-day period.
The late-hours special duty
prosecutor, Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, issued an arrest warrant for
Assange, who quickly protested his innocence and charged that the claims
against him were a “dirty trick.” Within twenty-four hours, Swedish
prosecutors did a near complete about-face. After finishing a
preliminary examination of the claims, chief prosecutor Eva Finné, to
whom the case was handed off, concluded that the evidence did not
justify an arrest warrant, and canceled the one issued by Ms.
“I do not believe there is any reason to suspect that he
has committed rape,” Ms. Finné told London’s Daily Telegraph.
She noted that the file would remain open under a downgraded charge of sexuellt ofredande
or unwanted sexual contact, a far less serious offense.
ne of the
women behind the charges gave an interview to the Swedish paper Aftonbladet on Sunday,
backpedaling furiously. She stated that she was surprised to learn
that the accusations were treated as a rape charge and denied that there
had been any encounter with Assange involving violence or force. She
suggested that the controversy had to do with Assange’s failure to use a
condom during intercourse. In the meantime, Sweden’s Justice Ombudsman
was demanding a formal investigation
into how the accusations came to be sensationalized by the press on the basis of an improperly issued arrest warrant.
A few points should be noted about this case. First, Swedish lawyers I have consulted state, much like this Swedish blog,
that according to Swedish criminal law, rape is an extremely serious
offense, and in practice any credible claim will result in the issuance
of an arrest warrant. That helps explain why prosecutor Kjellstrand
issued an arrest warrant late on Friday.
And it also means that Finné’s
decision to quash the warrant could only have resulted from her
determination based on preliminary review that the claims either were
not credible or that they did not amount to rape even if taken as true.
Second, under the Swedish criminal justice system, like in many others,
the preliminary investigation of allegations of a crime is a secret
matter. That is doubly the case in questions relating to sexual
misconduct, since disclosure may do severe damage to the reputation of
all the parties involved. In this case, the information was fanned in a
tabloid-style paper within minutes of its being opened. The
prosecutors involved insist that they did not disclose this information.
Assange, however, quickly laid the blame on the Pentagon. He stated that he had been warned by Australian intelligence
to be on guard against “honey traps”—the time-honored ploys that
intelligence services use to lure a target into a sexual encounter with
someone who then uses the encounter to damage the target’s reputation.
Earlier today, however, Assange reversed course on these charges, telling the Sydney Morning Herald,
“We don’t have direct evidence that this is coming from a U.S. or other
intelligence service, but we can have some suspicions about who will
benefit, but without direct evidence I won’t be making direct
The Pentagon quickly denounced the charges
as “absurd.” But there is no doubt that the Pentagon is seeking to
gain from them in its information war with WikiLeaks: when the case
first emerged, the accusations were aggressively spread by the Pentagon
It repeatedly identifies Assange as a target, describes the leaks as
criminal acts and advocates “successful prosecutions” to “destroy the
center of gravity” of WikiLeaks. The suspicions raised by Assange are
thus hardly unwarranted—they match the Pentagon’s own plan to take
WikiLeaks out of action.
However, there is as yet no direct evidence
for the claim that the accusations leveled at Assange were the work of
some intelligence service, and even if there were, Assange has plenty of
governments anxious to shut him down aside from the United States. But
as this incident makes clear, the war on WikiLeaks will be fought with
unconventional tools and those following the story are advised to accept
nothing at face value.