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Scandinavian saga of legal intrigue awaits for Assange

The lawyer representing two Swedish women at the center of rape and sexual assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Claes Borgstroem, speaks to journalists on December 8, 2010 at the Borgstroem & Bodstroem lawfirm in Stockholm. Borgstroem said hackers had attacked the Internet site and email service of the lawfirm. The WikiLeaks site has also come under sustained cyber attack since it began dumping some 250,000 confidential US diplomatic memos on November 28.

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images/Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

If WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is extradited to Sweden for questioning on sexual-crime allegations, he will be plunged into a system of criminal law unfamiliar to Canadians. Here's how it works.

The Complaint

In Sweden, crimes are first reported to the police. The police lead investigations for common offences such as petty theft and fraud. However, for crime that are considered severe - such as assault, rape or murder - the police immediately involve a prosecutor.

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Prosecutor's role

- A key difference between Canadian and Swedish criminal law is the role of the Swedish Prosecution Authority. In Sweden, prosecutors work closely with the police, directing investigations and participating in the questioning of witnesses and suspects. They hold ultimate power in investigations, deciding when to make arrests and whether to press charges.

- On Aug. 20, two women went to the Stockholm police to accuse Mr. Assange of sexual assault. The prosecutor on duty decided there was enough evidence to suspect him of the rape allegations. Uncertain of Mr. Assange's whereabouts - and concerned that he might flee the country before he could be questioned - the prosecutor arrested him in absentia, the equivalent of issuing an arrest warrant, said Karin Rosander, a spokesperson for the Prosecution Authority.

- What makes the Assange case unusual, even in Sweden, is what came next. The Swedish Prosecution Authority is hierarchal and allows for decisions to be overruled by higher-ranking prosecutors. The day after the arrest warrant was issued, a second prosecutor decided there was insufficient evidence to investigate Mr. Assange for rape. She reversed the first prosecutor's decision and withdrew the arrest warrant.

- The following week, Claes Bergstrom, the Swedish lawyer appointed to represent the women in the case, appealed to yet another level of the Prosecution Authority. Marianne Ny, director of prosecution, reviewed the case a third time and overruled the decision of the second prosecutor. The rape investigation was reopened.

European Arrest Warrant

In November, Ms. Ny asked a Swedish court to issue an order to arrest and detain Mr. Assange, arguing that attempts to question him had failed. Though Mr. Assange fought the order, his appeals were struck down by both Sweden's appeals court and its Supreme Court.

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What's next

- If Mr. Assange's attempt to fight extradition fail, he will be sent to Stockholm for questioning. There is no bail system in Sweden, so if charges are pressed, the court will decide whether to hold him in custody pending trial.

- Trials take place in Sweden's district court and are presided over by four judges - one official justice of the court and three lay judges. The lay judges are appointed by political parties and selected at random for each case. They are there to "protect the common sense," and hold as much power as the official justice, said Leif Oestling, a law professor at Sweden's Gothenburg University.


In Sweden, rape charges are separated into three categories. "Severe rape" charges involve a high degree of violence and carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. "Regular rape" and "less severe rape" carry maximum sentences of six and four years, respectively. Mr. Assange is being investigated for less severe rape. He has also been accused of sexual molestation and unlawful coercion, Ms. Rosander said. These offences each carry a sentence of two years.

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