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2010-12-15

Attorney: Swedish Case is a "Holding Charge" to Get Julian Assange Extradited to U.S.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains in a London prison after Swedish authorities challenged the court’s decision to release him on bail with conditions. Assange’s attorney Mark Stephens joins us to discuss his possible extradition to Sweden for questioning on alleged sexual crimes amidst rumors the Obama administration has convened a grand jury to indict Assange in the United States. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is still in jail in London. On Tuesday, a British court granted Assange bail but then forced him to remain in prison after Swedish authorities decided to challenge the decision. Assange has been detained since last week, when he was arrested in London on an international warrant to face sex crimes allegations in Sweden. His arrest came amidst an international uproar over WikiLeaks’ most recent publication of a massive trove of secret U.S. diplomatic cables.

In a dramatic day in court Tuesday, Assange’s supporters broke out in cheers when the London judge granted Assange bail. But when the counsel for the prosecution indicated it would appeal, the judge told Assange he would remain in jail until a hearing at a higher court within 48 hours. If he wins that appeal, Assange will still have to raise 200,000 pounds sterling — more than $300,000 — in bail money. He would also be subject to a curfew, be forced to wear an electronic tag, and report to a nearby police station every evening until his next court appearance on January 11th.

Before Tuesday’s hearing, Assange remained defiant, telling his mother, Christine, from his cell he was committed to publishing more secret U.S. cables. In a written statement of his comments supplied to Australia’s Network Seven by his mother, Assange said, quote, "My convictions are unfaltering. I remain true to the ideals I have expressed. This circumstance shall not shake them."

Several of Julian Assange’s high-profile supporters have been attending the court proceedings in London and have offered to contribute funds for his bail. They include political commentator and writer Tariq Ali, campaigner Bianca Jagger, filmmaker Ken Loach and veteran Australian journalist John Pilger, who is joining us now from London. John Pilger is an award-winning investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker who has written close to a dozen books and made over 50 documentaries. His latest film premiered last night on television and in theaters throughout Britain. It’s called The War You [Don’t] See and includes interviews with Julian Assange.

John Pilger, we welcome you to Democracy Now!, as well as Julian Assange’s attorney, Mark Stephens. John, why don’t you start off by telling us what the scene —

MARK STEPHENS: Hi, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: — was like outside the courtroom and the significance of what is happening right now.

JOHN PILGER: Well, the scene outside the courtroom represented how people feel about this. People are overwhelmingly angry and overwhelmingly supportive of Julian Assange and of WikiLeaks. They have no difficulty seeing the injustice, the injustice that has been perpetrated in this rather absurd case in Sweden, but also the importance of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks organization in allowing us to get a glimpse of how the world is really run, how and why politicians lie to us. I think it’s — in all my career as a journalist, I’ve never known anything like it. I think we’re seeing a great awakening, and WikiLeaks has been the catalyst for that. And that was very much demonstrated outside the court yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Stephens, maybe for people around the world who are watching and listening to this right now, you can explain what exactly happened in the courtroom, the fact that Julian Assange has been held for more than a week in prison and has not been charged with a crime. Explain how we have come to this point.

MARK STEPHENS: Well, it’s a slightly bizarre situation. He’s wanted for questioning in Sweden. He’s already had one interview with the Swedish prosecutor. He’s wanted for another interview. The Swedish prosecutor has refused to tell him what she wants to interview him about or to give him the nature of the allegations. So, really, what we’re talking about now is an extradition warrant, which they’ve now issued. And so, the question on the extradition warrant is, should he serve his time in prison while the decision about extradition is being made, or should — as the Swedes would have it, should he be sitting in jail, Scrooge-like, over Christmas? Now, the problem we’ve got is that the Swedes seem dead set to try and keep him in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the Interpol red — what red flag is, what exactly the Swedes are saying he has done and they want him for, and what it means for him to be extradited to Sweden, if that’s what’s going to happen.

MARK STEPHENS: OK. An Interpol red notice is a notice sent out, usually secretly, but very bizarrely in this case it’s been made public, which allows the authorities of each state to notify Sweden every time he crosses a port or enters or leaves a country. The matter that he’s wanted for is a sexual misdemeanor, a series of offenses in Sweden. He isn’t charged with that. And the Swedish lawyers tell me that even if he were convicted, he wouldn’t go to jail. So we’re in this rather bonkers position where the Swedish lawyers tell us he wouldn’t go to jail, yet on an extradition warrant, he’s being held in custody. And as you said at the top, Amy, they are some onerous conditions. He’s effectively under house arrest — or, as we said in court yesterday, mansion arrest — because he will be put up in a 600-acre estate, a 10-bedroom mansion near London.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what is happening, that you understand is happening, here in the United States in Virginia? So he is being wanted for questioning about sex crimes in Sweden, but then the United States, the Attorney General Eric Holder, has said something else.

MARK STEPHENS: Excuse me, yes. A bit of a cough.

The position is that — the word swirling around the elites in Stockholm is that the Americans are effectively using this as a holding charge. A holding charge, as you’ll know, is a charge that people have no intention of prosecuting, because it’s meritless, or that it’s such a minor offense that actually the big sucker punch is coming, and we haven’t yet seen that. And the word in Stockholm is that there is a secret grand jury empaneled in Alexandria just near the Pentagon and that they are considering how they might get Julian Assange on criminal charges in the United States. Now, the United States authorities have flatly denied that. Now, if that’s true, then it would be difficult to see how he could be extradited. And, of course, as a lawyer, I can’t see that he’s committed any offense. And indeed a congressional report that came out on the 6th of December said very much the same thing. But I’m sure you’ll appreciate, as will viewers, that he has made some big and powerful enemies.

AMY GOODMAN: A friend of Julian Assange has told Sky News he believes that if he is extradited to Sweden, that he could be sent to the United States. Why would it be easier for him to be sent to the United States from Sweden than from Britain, Mark Stephens?

MARK STEPHENS: That’s a very good question, Amy. And the answer really is that we do have extradition arrangements between the U.K. and the U.S., but the British judges have a long history of looking at them pretty carefully. You’ll be familiar with the case of Gary McKinnon, the young child that hacked into the Pentagon computers, comprehensively embarrassed them, and he’s wanted on an extradition warrant to the United States. That’s been being fought for about three or four years now. And so, the possibility is that the British courts would look at this and scrutinize it in a thorough and independent way. That’s what British judges are; they’re not politically influenced. Whereas I think that it’s felt that the Swedes have perhaps a little more of a soft touch and perhaps, more fairly, are less experienced, the judiciary in Sweden, in dealing with these extradition warrants, and perhaps would — it would go more on the nod from Sweden.

AMY GOODMAN: How much money exactly does Julian Assange have to raise for bail?

MARK STEPHENS: He’s got to raise 200,000 pounds in cash. That’s about $300,000. And, of course, the problem with that is that we finished court after banking hours closed yesterday, so — and getting that kind of money out of a bank, you’ll realize that most banks don’t carry that kind of money. It’s very modest amounts that they carry these days, because we spend most of our money electronically. And, of course, he’s being electronically hobbled by Visa and MasterCard, who have stopped the accounts being — paying money to WikiLeaks. And so, actually gathering that money has meant that he’s had to call on — and we’ve had, on his behalf — to call upon the very generous friends that he has, very high-profile individuals. But even they can’t make money move after banking hours. And, of course, that’s why he was sent back to Wandsworth Prison, the very prison that indeed Oscar Wilde, the Anglo-Irish writer, was held in when he was up for crimes of a very different nature.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s been held in solitary in prison, Mark Stephens?

MARK STEPHENS: Yes, very unusually. Men who are accused of rape are usually released on bail, and they are given bail on condition they don’t contact the alleged victim. So, to find someone in prison is unusual enough. To find conditions as sort of onerous as these put on your bail is incredibly unusual. And to then find that you’re put in prison is even more unusual still. Yet further in the unusual stakes is the fact the he’s on a 23-and-a-half-hour lockdown, although he’s a model prisoner, deprived of access to television, to current affairs information, news, newspapers, magazines and such like. So, he really is on almost a punishment regime.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting. There’s a letter from Women Against Rape, a British organization, in The Guardian newspaper in London. It’s written by Katrin Axelsson in support of Julian Assange. And it says, "Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations. [...] Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst." This is a feminist organization in London. Mark Stephens?

MARK STEPHENS: I think that most of us are extremely troubled about this. And I think the reason that we’re troubled is that false allegations of sex crimes are incredibly rare. When they come along, they stink. This one utterly reeks. And, of course, the problem for that, more widely, is that it discourages genuine complaints about rape and sexual misbehaviors. And, of course, it demeans the complaints that are made by women who have genuinely been abused. And so, any of those kind of false allegations really do devalue this. And I’m not surprised that people like Naomi Wolf and — in the Huffington Post and also that letter in The Guardian are really concerned about this, because it is an unusual zeal, as she says. I would say it’s a vindictive campaign, and one has to understand why that vindictive campaign is going on.

AMY GOODMAN: What did the Swedish authorities ask him about in the first questioning of him? And how is it that he hasn’t been released on bail?

MARK STEPHENS: Well, he was granted bail yesterday by the judge, albeit on conditions, and we’re now waiting for the further appeal. The Swedes really clearly didn’t want to abide by the umpire’s decision. And, of course, we’re having every time to have people who have been incredibly generous with their time, people like John Pilger who have come along, other high-profile figures like Bianca Jagger and Jemima Khan, film director Ken Loach, Hanif Kureishi, the author. All sorts of people have come forward, stepped forward. Some of these people don’t even know him and have said, "I believe that there is something really wrong here." And they’ve come to right an injustice. They see an injustice taking place before their eyes, and they are stepping up to the plate to do something about it. And I have to say, I am in awe of those people who have behaved so honorably and so decently.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Mark Stephens, for being with us, attorney for Julian Assange. John Pilger, I’d like to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to play a clip from the film that premiered last night throughout Britain called The War You Don’t See, which has a section on Julian Assange, a man you have come to know, who you call a friend.

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