Thursday, November 18, 2010

BREAKING: International Arrest Warrant for WikiLeaks' Assange

Swedish prosecutor's office said that a Stockholm court had approved its request for an arrest warrant to be issued for Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks whistle-blower's Web site, for questioning on months-old charges of rape and other offenses."

Bjorn Hurtig, the lawyer of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, left, talks to the media, 11/18/10. (photo: Leif R Jansson/Scanpix Sweden/AP)
Bjorn Hurtig, the lawyer of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, left, talks to the media, 11/18/10. (photo: Leif R Jansson/Scanpix Sweden/AP)

By John F. Burns, The New York Times

18 November 10

An international arrest warrant via Interpol stemming from an allegation of failing to perform coitus interruptus is extraordinary under any circumstances. The countercharge that the Swedish prosecutors have been influenced by US Government pressure to detain WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in light of WikiLeaks release of thousands of documents detailing US war crimes is, on it's face, more plausible. -- ma/RSN

London - The Swedish prosecutor's office said Thursday that a Stockholm court had approved its request for an arrest warrant to be issued for Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks whistle-blower's Web site, for questioning on months-old charges of rape and other offenses.

Karin Rosander, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, said in a statement in English that the court had decided to issue the warrant "in the absence" of Mr. Assange over suspicions of his involvement in "rape, sexual molestation and unlawful coercion."

She added that "the next step for the prosecutor is to issue an international arrest warrant." She gave no indication when that would be done.

Mr. Assange's lawyer in Britain, Mark Stephens, said the allegations were "false and without basis."

Marianne Ny, director of the Stockholm prosecutor's office, said in a telephone interview that the court had approved two warrants, one European and the other usable by Interpol, should Mr. Assange leave the European Union. Lawyers said he could take court action to resist extradition to Sweden in either case, including arguing that the case against him has been prejudiced by political considerations.

In recent weeks, Mr. Assange has made several public appearances in London, after spending several weeks in Sweden and flying first to Berlin, then to London, in early October. Mr. Stephens said Mr. Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, remained in London as of Thursday morning.

A statement by Ms. Ny issued before the Stockholm ruling said that prosecutors had been "unable to interrogate" Mr. Assange in nearly 13 weeks, since the allegations against him by two Swedish women became public.

But this was flatly denied by Mr. Stephens, who said in a statement that "over the last three months, despite numerous demands, neither Mr. Assange, nor his legal counsel, has received a single word in writing from the Swedish authorities relating to the allegations."

Mr. Stephens added that the prosecutor's "behavior is not a prosecution, but a persecution."

"Our client has always maintained his innocence," he said. "The allegations against him are false and without basis. As a result of these false allegations and bizarre legal interpretations, our client now has his name and reputation besmirched."

"My client is now in the extraordinary position that, despite his innocence, and despite never having been charged, and despite never receiving a single piece of paper about the allegations against him, one in 10 Internet references to the word ‘rape' also include his name," Mr. Stephens said. "Every day that this flawed investigation continues, the damages to his reputation are compounded."

Mr. Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 as a forum for publishing secret and confidential documents of political, military and economic significance passed to the organization by whistle-blowers who have obtained them from governments, corporations and other sources.

This summer, WikiLeaks posted a cache of 77,000 secret Pentagon documents on the war in Afghanistan, and it followed that last month by posting nearly 400,000 Pentagon documents, also secret, on the Iraq war.

On both occasions, the documents were provided in advance to The New York Times, the Guardian of Britain and Der Spiegel magazine in Germany, all of which ran extensive articles focusing on the insights the documents gave into the United States' conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Obama administration condemned both leaks, and demanded that WikiLeaks "return" all secret American documents and undertake not to publish any more in the future.

The Pentagon and the Justice Department have established a task force to probe all aspects of the affair, and officials have said that prosecution of Mr. Assange and his associates under the 1917 Espionage Act was one step under consideration.

The allegations of rape and sexual molestation against Mr. Assange arose shortly after he arrived in Sweden in late August on a journey that he described at the time as aimed at establishing a secure base for himself and WikiLeaks under Sweden's broad press freedom laws.

The two women who accused him were volunteers who had offered to assist WikiLeaks and met him in his first days in Sweden.

According to accounts the women gave to the police and friends, Swedish officials have said, they had consensual sexual encounters with Mr. Assange that became nonconsensual. One woman said that Mr. Assange had ignored her appeals to stop after a condom broke. The other woman said that she and Mr. Assange had begun a sexual encounter using a condom, but that Mr. Assange did not comply with her appeals to stop when it was no longer in use.

Mr. Assange has questioned the veracity of those accounts.

The Stockholm prosecutor's office first issued a warrant for Mr. Assange's arrest, then withdrew it, and later announced that it was still investigating the rape and sexual molestation charges.

Mr. Assange responded at the time by saying that he was a victim of "dirty tricks." Subsequently, in London, he spoke of a "smear campaign" against him and WikiLeaks, and complained about the Swedish prosecutor's delay in disposing of the case. In an interview in London with The New York Times on Oct. 17, he said that 50 days had passed since the Swedish allegations were made public.

The action by the prosecutor's office on Thursday came more than 12 weeks after it said it wanted to interview Mr. Assange in the office's first statement on the investigation.

Thursday's statement implied that no interview had ever taken place. Mr. Assange has spoken on a number of occasions in recent weeks of his growing anxiety about his personal security.

He suggested at a news conference in London on Oct. 23 that he might have to move to Moscow or Havana, Cuba, in his search for a secure base.

In recent days, WikiLeaks supporters have made moves to establish a legal base for WikiLeaks in Iceland, where Mr. Assange spent several weeks this year.

Daniel Ellsberg, the 79-year-old American military analyst who provided The New York Times and other publications with copies of the secret Pentagon documents on the Vietnam War that became known as the Pentagon Papers in 1971, flew to London from California to support Mr. Assange at the mid-October news conference held in conjunction with the publication of the secret Iraq war documents on the WikiLeaks site.

"Choose Havana," Mr. Ellsberg said, after Mr. Assange spoke of his possible destinations, prompting laughter from him and many of his supporters.

In his statement on Thursday, Mr. Stephens, the lawyer, said Mr. Assange had "repeatedly offered to be interviewed, first in Sweden, and then in Britain (including at the Swedish Embassy), either in person or by telephone, videoconferencing or e-mail, and he has also offered to make a sworn statement on affidavit."

"Before leaving Sweden, Mr. Assange asked to be interviewed by the prosecution on several occasions in relation to the allegations, staying over a month in Stockholm, at considerable expense and despite many engagements elsewhere, in order to clear his name," Mr. Stephens said. "Eventually the prosecution told his Swedish lawyer Bjorn Hurtig that he was free to leave the country, without interview, which he did."

Mr. Stephens has worked for The Times on libel cases, the most recent of which ended earlier this year.

Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.

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