Two years into his stay at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he is hiding from Swedish authorities looking to question him in connection with rape allegations, Julian Assange will leave his diplomatic redoubt "soon," he revealed on Monday. Cryptic as ever, the Australian freedom-of-information activist did not explain why, nor exactly when he would depart the embassy.
Assange’s comments, made alongside Ecuador’s foreign minister, mean that he might finally be questioned by Swedish prosecutors about allegations that he raped one woman and molested another in 2010. No charges have been filed against Assange, 43; but there is a warrant to bring him in for questioning. Assange says the allegations are false and part of a plot to extradite him to the United States, where a secret grand jury has reportedly been impaneled to consider unspecified charges against him.
Is Assange’s conspiracy theory correct? And would Sweden extradite him?
Highly doubtful. Sweden’s extradition agreement with the United States, signed in 1961 and updated in 1983, prohibits extradition on the basis of "a political offense" or "an offense connected with a political offense." The agreement does not specify what constitutes a "political offense." Whether the Swedish supreme court would rule to extradite Assange largely depends on what charges the secret U.S. grand jury brings against him.
If Assange is accused of espionage, Sweden most certainly would not comply, as its courts have consistently determined that espionage constitutes a political offense. For example, in 1992 Sweden refused to extradite Edward Lee Howard, the only CIA agent to defect to the Soviet Union, to the United States. Charged with espionage, Swedish courts ruled that those accusations amounted to the kind of "political offense" specified in the extradition agreement.
But that legal gray area also threatens Assange’s legal prospects. The U.S. Justice Department is surely aware of these restrictions and precedents and may instead slap Assange with a more creative set of charges — cyber crime or theft, perhaps.
He would still have some recourse under the Swedish legal system, however. When Assange first went into hiding, Foreign Policy discussed his case with UIf Wallentheim, the director of the division for criminal cases and international judicial cooperation at the Swedish Ministry of Justice. He said that Swedish courts tend to see through such ploys to circumvent Swedish extradition agreements’ exceptions. Swedish judges often examine a case’s underlying factors when making their determinations, he said.
But Assange could be more afraid of a snatch-and-grab CIA operation. In 2002, Sweden collaborated with the United States in the extraordinary rendition of two Egyptians seeking asylum. That example is often seen as indicative of what even left-wing Scandinavian governments will do when pressured by the United States in such cases.
But a covert operation is all but unthinkable given Sweden’s political environment. Next month, Swedes head to the polls for parliamentary elections in which they are expected to vote the center-right government out of office. Trailing in the polls to a left-wing coalition, the government would be throwing a bone to its rivals by rolling out the red carpet for the CIA. The Social Democrats, who are likely to lead the next government, are equally unlikely to OK a U.S. operation to whisk Assange into an American courtroom.
According to the British media, Assange is not in good health. He’s also supposedly seeking a resolution with U.K. authorities to leave his self-imposed jail. Citing a WikiLeaks source, the tabloid Mail on Sunday reported that Assange is "suffering from the potentially life-threatening heart condition arrhythmia and has a chronic lung complaint and dangerously high blood pressure." Nonetheless, British authorities are supposedly adamant about enforcing the warrant against him.
"We are clear that our laws must be followed, and Mr. Assange should be extradited to Sweden.… As ever, we look to Ecuador to help bring this difficult, and costly, situation to an end," a government spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal. The U.K. has spent some $10 million on a 24-hour police presence outside the embassy.
Perhaps the time has come for Assange to roll the dice in the Swedish courts.