Want the best from VICE News in your inbox? Sign up here.
Julian Assange is a man in demand. Both the U.S. and Sweden are seeking his extradition, and everyone wants to know: Who will win?
Swedish authorities formally announced their intention Monday to reopen an investigation into rape allegations made against the WikiLeaks founder back in 2010 and indicated they would seek his extradition to face questioning. The move puts Swedish prosecutors on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced conspiracy charges last month against Assange for allegedly trying to hack into Pentagon computers with whistleblower Chelsea Manning in 2010.
Now, Assange’s future lies in the hands of U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Although he can rely on some specific legal criteria, the ultimate decision will come down to Javid’s own judgment — as well as the political pressure applied from all sides.
“I think that Assange will be extradited to the U.S.,” Milena Sterio, an expert in international law at Cleveland State University, told VICE News. “The U.S. request came first — Sweden just reopened an investigation that it had closed — and the U.S. is in a position to exert political pressure on the U.K. Political considerations play a large role in extradition practices.”
“The fairest approach would be to give the Swedish authorities the first bite of the cherry.”
Assange had successfully avoided law enforcement by spending the last seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, but officials kicked him out after a series of bad behavior, including skateboarding in the halls. That gave London authorities the opportunity to arrest him for breaching bail conditions related to extradition proceedings. As Assange serves his 50-week sentence at Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison in London, the legal fight over his extradition has only intensified.
What happens next?
Both sides have yet to formally make their final extradition requests, but once they do, a court will decide if the warrants are valid. Then, the requests will come before Javid, who will have to decide on how to apply section 179 of the Extradition Act.
Under the act, he will have to consider four distinct criteria when deciding which request to prioritize.
1. The seriousness of the crimes: "There is no real guidance on what seriousness should mean in this context,” Anna Bradshaw, an extradition law expert at Peters & Peters law firm in London, told VICE News. “On one level you could look to the maximum sentence available for each of them, but you could also take into account public interest.”
2. The places the offenses were allegedly committed: The location is relatively straight-forward in the Swedish case — the alleged assault took place in Stockholm. But we don’t know where Assange was when he allegedly attempted to help Manning hack into the Pentagon’s system.
If he was in the U.K., Javid would have to consider what jurisdiction he should be tried in.
3. The timing of the respective requests: The Swedish request post-dates the U.S. one, but the fact that Sweden first made an extradition request back in 2010 complicates the matter. That resulted in a years-long legal battle that Assange lost in the Supreme Court — triggering his decision to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.
"If I was advising the U.K. government I would advise them to take a very simple approach and say the Swedish request — although it's a new request — came originally back in 2010,” Adam Wagner, a U.K.-based human rights lawyer, told VICE News. “So the fairest approach would be to give the Swedish authorities the first bite of the cherry.”
4. Has the person already been convicted or just accused?: This is a moot point given Assange is only being accused in both jurisdictions and has not been convicted.
The pressure's building
The home secretary will have to take into account the criteria under the law, but there will be a lot more at play when Javid makes his decision.
"The decision maker is a politician, so it is going to be a political exercise of discretion, and a range of factors will make their way into the assessment,” Bradshaw said.
A group of U.K. lawmakers has already put significant pressure on Javid to send Assange to Sweden. Last month, 70 U.K. lawmakers signed a letter that they “stand with the victims of sexual violence” and want to ensure the rape claim against the WikiLeaks founder could be “properly investigated.”
The opposition Labour Party has also called on the government to block Assange’s extradition to the U.S. on “human rights grounds” and cited the case of hacker Gary McKinnon. Then-Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the U.S. request to extradite McKinnon for hacking into military computers in 2012.
But the “special relationship” that exists between the U.S. and U.K. means that considerable pressure will also be exerted from across the Atlantic, where a number of lawmakers have expressed their desire to see Assange tried in court for publishing tens of thousands of classified U.S. government documents.
“I think the home secretary will have to plot a very careful course in how he explains his decision,” Adam Wanger, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, told VICE News.
In a statement following Assange’s arrest last month, Javid said he was “pleased” the situation in the Ecuadorian embassy had finally been concluded but did not comment on either of the possible extradition requests.
Nothing is going to happen quickly.
First, the U.S. and Sweden will have to make their final official requests — the deadline for which runs out on June 15. Then, the home secretary and his team of advisers will have to deliberate on the decision and issue a judgment.
Their decision, however, can be challenged in court, meaning Assange will likely remain in a U.K. prison for many months more. The original extradition request in 2010 led to an 18-month long legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
“I think it will be a year at least before he is extradited anywhere,” Wagner said.
But timing could play an important part in Javid’s decision, given that the statute of limitations on the rape allegation in Sweden runs out in August 2020. “If [Javid] does not prioritize the Swedish request, the Swedish authorities will never be able to prosecute [Assange] as they will be out of time,” Bradshaw said.
Cover image: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van as he is driven into Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1, 2019, before being sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)