Last month, the IELR Blog reported on the arrest and potential extradition of Julian Assange. Assange, who had been granted asylum status by Ecuador in 2012, lived in the London embassy for seven years. President Moreno of Ecuador revoked his asylum status in April 2019, and hours later, Ecuador allowed British authorities to enter the embassy and arrest Assange for his failure to surrender to the court in a previous case. After the arrest, British authorities noted that they detained Assange partially on behalf of the U.S., who sought the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder for conspiring to commit computer intrusion alongside Chelsea Manning. Though Assange has since been convicted for his failure to obey the British courts and the U.S. is moving ahead with processing their extradition request, recent developments have complicated the matter further.
On May 13, 2019, Swedish prosecutors announced the reopening of their investigation into Julian Assange on rape allegations. The allegations first came to light in 2010, when Assange traveled to Sweden and was accused by two separate women of sexual assault and misconduct. Assange remained in the UK as the 18-month case progressed. When his extradition to Sweden appeared inevitable, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, and eight weeks later, he acquired asylum status, allowing him to remain in the embassy and elude legal ramifications for the time being. Though Swedish authorities continued their investigation into Assange at this time, they dropped a number of charges against him in 2015, including molestation and unlawful coercion, as the statute of limitations expired. In 2017, they halted their rape investigation as well, believing that – with Assange still protected by his asylum status in the Ecuadorian embassy – they had exhausted all options to achieve his extradition.
Upon his eviction from the embassy and arrest by British authorities, however, Sweden immediately took a renewed interest in the case. Speaking to the media, Swedish prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson noted that, “conditions have changed in the case and I believe that there are again opportunities to push the matter forward.” Persson hopes to further question Assange regarding the allegations, and is considering doing so via video link from the UK, but only if Assange agrees. With the statute of limitations on the rape charge set to expire in August 2020, Swedish authorities have wasted little time in pursuing the case since Assange was removed from the Ecuadorian embassy.
Yet with the U.S. already seeking Assange’s extradition, the additional request by Sweden has added a further layer of complexity to the issue. According to Article 16 of the Council of the European Union Framework Decision 2002/584, the executing EU Member State – in this case, the UK – makes the ultimate decision on which request to carry out, considering factors including the chronology of the requests and the severity of the allegations. Although Sweden was first to seek Assange’s extradition, their decision to remove their request means that the U.S. is now first in line. However, British officials are likely to treat rape as a more serious crime than computer intrusion. Home Secretary Sajid Javid will make the official ruling on behalf of the UK.
The U.S. may also make the argument that the charges against Assange relate specifically to national security. Were Sweden to receive Assange from the UK, the U.S. could eventually seek his extradition from Sweden.
The recent decision by Sweden to pursue Assange’s extradition raises a simple, yet important, question in international enforcement law – what happens when two countries seek the extradition of the same individual? Though both sides still need to make their case to the UK, as the U.S. is still finalizing its arguments and Sweden is soon to issue a European Arrest Warrant (EAW), both cases have merit: the U.S. has the longest standing claim to Assange, while Sweden has what many argue is a more serious allegation against him. It will be worth monitoring the situation as it progresses to consider what factors, if any, play a role in deciding where Assange ends up. Both the U.S. and Sweden have long-standing claims against Assange, so it is unlikely that one state will withdraw their request for the benefit of the other. What state has a stronger claim – and where the favor of the UK Home Secretary lies – remains to be seen.