This article originally appeared at The Nation on June 22, 2011.
Julian Assange has chosen a new legal team to represent him in his quest to prevent extradition from London to Sweden, where authorities are seeking to interview him in a sexual assault case involving two Swedish women.
Until now, the Assange defense team has disparaged the Swedish assault charges and suggested that once in Swedish hands, the WikiLeaks founder might face extradition to the United States on conspiracy charges carrying a life sentence.
Extensive interviews I conducted last week revealed that the previous Assange legal team had created puzzlement, loss of confidence and even antagonism in Sweden by their attacks on Swedish justice. Though a reasonable paranoia is understandable from the Assange team and from Assange himself, given the calls for the death penalty (by Mike Huckabee) or that he be “hunted down like al Qaeda” (Sarah Palin), not to mention previous renditions of two terrorism suspects from Sweden by the CIA in 2004, the legal strategy has backfired by alienating not only mainstream Swedish opinion but also some among the left and in the peace movement.
The new solicitor on the case is Gareth Peirce, a renowned British human rights advocate who has defended Guantánamo detainees and Irish republicans in previous decades. The barrister who will present Assange’s case in the appellate hearing set for July 12 is Ben Emmerson, also a respected human rights attorney who has served as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism.
Peirce’s appointment drew immediate praise from Michael Ratner, president of the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who worked with Peirce to obtain the successful release from Guantánamo and the dropping of charges against three British terrorism suspects in 2004. “There is nobody better than Gareth; she is the most client- centered lawyer I know. She was the most respected lawyer who was part of our team,” the New York–based Ratner said yesterday.
I interviewed Peirce by Skype in her London offices last Thursday from Sweden, before word of her appointment became public. Yesterday, she issued the following statement to The Nation:
“The history of this case is as unfortunate as it is possible to imagine, in which encounters, undoubtedly believed by all parties at the time to be private, became inappropriately the subject of publicity and thereafter in consequence no doubt the more difficult to resolve. Each of the human beings involved deserves respect and consideration. It is hoped that whatever steps as are required to be taken in the future will be taken thoughtfully, with sensitivity and with such respect.”
In Sweden last Thursday, I received a similarly conciliatory statement from Claes Borgström, the attorney for the two women pressing the assault charges and a former Swedish equal opportunity ombudsperson. Asked if he thought Assange would be extradited from Sweden to the United States sometime in the future, Borgström answered, “I hope not. And I believe that my clients [the two women] feel the same way. But you can’t print that.” Upon being told that sources are expected to request being off-the-record before they make any statements, not after, Borgström then repeated the same words about Assange’s potential extradition, with emphasis.