11 Feb 2011

Assange lawyer: ‘interference’ by Sweden PM could wreck case

Julian Assange’s lawyer has told Channel 4 News comments by the Swedish prime minister are effectively “contempt of court” that prove the WikiLeaks founder would not get a fair trial if extradited.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fights extradition. (Reuters)

Mark Stephens said that Julian Assange‘s chances of fair treatment in Sweden have been further damaged and that Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has fuelled a “toxic atmosphere” surrounding the case.

The 39-year-old Australian faces three charges of sexually assaulting one woman and one charge of raping another during a week-long visit to Stockholm in August. He denies any wrongdoing. His WikiLeaks website has published secret war files from Iraq and Afghanistan plus tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables.

Prime Minister Reinfeldt hit back to defend Sweden during a speech in parliament on Tuesday (8 February), the second day of Mr Assange’s extradition hearing at Belmarsh Magistrates’ Court in south east London.

The Swedish PM said that Mr Assange’s team had been “condescending” and that criticism of his country’s legal system was “damaging”.

In the UK it would be contempt of court – if David Cameron said something like this he would be hauled up… Mark Stephens

The comments go back on a pledge made by Mr Reinfeldt on 20 January during a trip to London when he told reporters “we should stay away from this” following a question about Assange. He added: We should remember when we ask questions about this that these are legal systems talking to each other, not politicians.”

Mark Stephens, Assange’s lawyer, told Channel 4 News the Swedish prime minister had “taken leave of his senses” having earlier accused Mr Reinfeldt of seeking “to taint the legal process”.

He explained to Channel 4 News: “The PM knows full well that speaking about the case is wrong.

“In the UK it would be contempt of court… if David Cameron said something like this he would be hauled up before the beak [magistrate or policeman].”

Fanning the flames of a media firestorm

Julian Assange’s defence team have also said that because Sweden is a small country of just over nine million people Reinfeldt’s “interference” increases an already negative mood surrounding the WikiLeaks editor.

Mark Stephens asked: “How can we have confidence in the independence of this process?”

But Clare Montgomery QC, for the Swedish authorities, has dismissed claims the prime minister had vilified Assange, suggesting that the comments were a reaction to media briefings given by the defence outside court.

She said: “You might think those who seek to fan the flames of a media firestorm can’t be surprised when they get burnt.”

'£850 per hour'
Claims that prosecutor Clare Montgomery is being paid £850 per hour are "not correct" according to Matrix Chambers, where she is a barrister.

Mr Stephens said this was her estimated rate for trying to secure Assange's extradition and that it is "significantly more" than defence QC Geoffrey Robertson receives.

On Tuesday Julian Assange said: "We see the unlimited budget of Sweden and the UK being spent on this matter - and my rather limited budget being spent in response."

Assange will ‘win out’

Mr Stephens told Channel 4 News he feels confident ahead of Judge Riddle’s decision. He said: “I’m convinced there have been so many breaches of code… I think Julian will win out.”

The case was adjourned to 24 February, when Judge Riddle is expected to announce his decision on whether Assange should be extradited.