A made-up rape allegation and fabricated evidence in Sweden, pressure from the UK not to drop the case, a biased judge, detention in a maximum security prison, psychological torture – and soon extradition to the U.S., where he could face up to 175 years in prison for exposing war crimes. For the first time, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, speaks in detail about the explosive findings of his investigation into the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
1. The Swedish Police constructed a story of rape
Nils Melzer, why is the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture interested in Julian Assange?
That is something that the German Foreign Ministry recently asked me as well: Is that really your core mandate? Is Assange the victim of torture?
What was your response?
The case falls into my mandate in three different ways: First, Assange published proof of systematic torture. But instead of those responsible for the torture, it is Assange who is being persecuted. Second, he himself has been ill-treated to the point that he is now exhibiting symptoms of psychological torture. And third, he is to be extradited to a country that holds people like him in prison conditions that Amnesty International has described as torture. In summary: Julian Assange uncovered torture, has been tortured himself and could be tortured to death in the United States. And a case like that isn’t supposed to be part of my area of responsibility? Beyond that, the case is of symbolic importance and affects every citizen of a democratic country.
Why didn’t you take up the case much earlier?
Imagine a dark room. Suddenly, someone shines a light on the elephant in the room – on war criminals, on corruption. Assange is the man with the spotlight. The governments are briefly in shock, but then they turn the spotlight around with accusations of rape. It is a classic maneuver when it comes to manipulating public opinion. The elephant once again disappears into the darkness, behind the spotlight. And Assange becomes the focus of attention instead, and we start talking about whether Assange is skateboarding in the embassy or whether he is feeding his cat correctly. Suddenly, we all know that he is a rapist, a hacker, a spy and a narcissist. But the abuses and war crimes he uncovered fade into the darkness. I also lost my focus, despite my professional experience, which should have led me to be more vigilant.
Let’s start at the beginning: What led you to take up the case?
In December 2018, I was asked by his lawyers to intervene. I initially declined. I was overloaded with other petitions and wasn’t really familiar with the case. My impression, largely influenced by the media, was also colored by the prejudice that Julian Assange was somehow guilty and that he wanted to manipulate me. In March 2019, his lawyers approached me for a second time because indications were mounting that Assange would soon be expelled from the Ecuadorian Embassy. They sent me a few key documents and a summary of the case and I figured that my professional integrity demanded that I at least take a look at the material.
It quickly became clear to me that something was wrong. That there was a contradiction that made no sense to me with my extensive legal experience: Why would a person be subject to nine years of a preliminary investigation for rape without charges ever having been filed?
Is that unusual?
I have never seen a comparable case. Anyone can trigger a preliminary investigation against anyone else by simply going to the police and accusing the other person of a crime. The Swedish authorities, though, were never interested in testimony from Assange. They intentionally left him in limbo. Just imagine being accused of rape for nine-and-a-half years by an entire state apparatus and by the media without ever being given the chance to defend yourself because no charges had ever been filed.
You say that the Swedish authorities were never interested in testimony from Assange. But the media and government agencies have painted a completely different picture over the years: Julian Assange, they say, fled the Swedish judiciary in order to avoid being held accountable.
That’s what I always thought, until I started investigating. The opposite is true. Assange reported to the Swedish authorities on several occasions because he wanted to respond to the accusations. But the authorities stonewalled.
What do you mean by that: «The authorities stonewalled?»
Allow me to start at the beginning. I speak fluent Swedish and was thus able to read all of the original documents. I could hardly believe my eyes: According to the testimony of the woman in question, a rape had never even taken place at all. And not only that: The woman’s testimony was later changed by the Stockholm police without her involvement in order to somehow make it sound like a possible rape. I have all the documents in my possession, the emails, the text messages.
«The woman’s testimony was later changed by the police» – how exactly?
On Aug. 20, 2010, a woman named S. W. entered a Stockholm police station together with a second woman named A. A. The first woman, S. W. said she had had consensual sex with Julian Assange, but he had not been wearing a condom. She said she was now concerned that she could be infected with HIV and wanted to know if she could force Assange to take an HIV test. She said she was really worried. The police wrote down her statement and immediately informed public prosecutors. Even before questioning could be completed, S. W. was informed that Assange would be arrested on suspicion of rape. S. W. was shocked and refused to continue with questioning. While still in the police station, she wrote a text message to a friend saying that she didn’t want to incriminate Assange, that she just wanted him to take an HIV test, but the police were apparently interested in «getting their hands on him.»
What does that mean?
S.W. never accused Julian Assange of rape. She declined to participate in further questioning and went home. Nevertheless, two hours later, a headline appeared on the front page of Expressen, a Swedish tabloid, saying that Julian Assange was suspected of having committed two rapes.
Yes, because there was the second woman, A. A. She didn’t want to press charges either; she had merely accompanied S. W. to the police station. She wasn’t even questioned that day. She later said that Assange had sexually harassed her. I can’t say, of course, whether that is true or not. I can only point to the order of events: A woman walks into a police station. She doesn’t want to file a complaint but wants to demand an HIV test. The police then decide that this could be a case of rape and a matter for public prosecutors. The woman refuses to go along with that version of events and then goes home and writes a friend that it wasn’t her intention, but the police want to «get their hands on» Assange. Two hours later, the case is in the newspaper. As we know today, public prosecutors leaked it to the press – and they did so without even inviting Assange to make a statement. And the second woman, who had allegedly been raped according to the Aug. 20 headline, was only questioned on Aug. 21.
What did the second woman say when she was questioned?
She said that she had made her apartment available to Assange, who was in Sweden for a conference. A small, one-room apartment. When Assange was in the apartment, she came home earlier than planned, but told him it was no problem and that the two of them could sleep in the same bed. That night, they had consensual sex, with a condom. But she said that during sex, Assange had intentionally broken the condom. If that is true, then it is, of course, a sexual offense – so-called «stealthing». But the woman also said that she only later noticed that the condom was broken. That is a contradiction that should absolutely have been clarified. If I don’t notice it, then I cannot know if the other intentionally broke it. Not a single trace of DNA from Assange or A. A. could be detected in the condom that was submitted as evidence.
How did the two women know each other?
They didn’t really know each other. A. A., who was hosting Assange and was serving as his press secretary, had met S. W. at an event where S. W. was wearing a pink cashmere sweater. She apparently knew from Assange that he was interested in a sexual encounter with S. W., because one evening, she received a text message from an acquaintance saying that he knew Assange was staying with her and that he, the acquaintance, would like to contact Assange. A. A. answered: Assange is apparently sleeping at the moment with the “cashmere girl.” The next morning, S. W. spoke with A. A. on the phone and said that she, too, had slept with Assange and was now concerned about having become infected with HIV. This concern was apparently a real one, because S.W. even went to a clinic for consultation. A. A. then suggested: Let’s go to the police – they can force Assange to get an HIV test. The two women, though, didn’t go to the closest police station, but to one quite far away where a friend of A. A.’s works as a policewoman – who then questioned S. W., initially in the presence of A. A., which isn’t proper practice. Up to this point, though, the only problem was at most a lack of professionalism. The willful malevolence of the authorities only became apparent when they immediately disseminated the suspicion of rape via the tabloid press, and did so without questioning A. A. and in contradiction to the statement given by S. W. It also violated a clear ban in Swedish law against releasing the names of alleged victims or perpetrators in sexual offense cases. The case now came to the attention of the chief public prosecutor in the capital city and she suspended the rape investigation some days later with the assessment that while the statements from S. W. were credible, there was no evidence that a crime had been committed.
But then the case really took off. Why?
Now the supervisor of the policewoman who had conducted the questioning wrote her an email telling her to rewrite the statement from S. W.
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