* Sweden angered by Assange flight
* Women's claims seen belittled by WikiLeaks head
* Nordic nation has strong human rights record
By Patrick Lannin and Mia Shanley
STOCKHOLM, Aug 21 While WikiLeaks founder Julian
Assange battles to stay in Britain, Sweden is incensed he has
belittled one of the world's most respected justice systems and
questioned a nation famed for welcoming - not extraditing -
Assange, hiding from arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy where
he has been granted diplomatic asylum, says he fears the United
States will try to extradite him if he goes to Sweden for
questioning over allegations of rape and sexual molestation.
Assange's speech from the embassy balcony on Sunday focused
on what he saw as his persecution by the United States, but did
not mention the rape allegations.
Assange's accusations have infuriated many in Sweden, who
say the stories of two women who made the sex crime allegations
have played second fiddle to unwarranted theories of a U.S.-led
conspiracy to extradite him with the help of allies in Europe.
"Assange has evolved into a megalomaniac rhetorician, who
seems to have very little contact left with reality," Sweden's
Svenska Dagbladet daily said after his embassy balcony speech.
Another newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, said the legal process
had to be followed through and defended Sweden as a nation that
upheld the "rule of law".
After Ecuador granted Assange asylum, Swedish Foreign
Minister Carl Bildt wrote: "Our firm legal and constitutional
system guarantees the rights of each and everyone. We firmly
reject any accusations to the contrary."
Along with other Nordic countries, Sweden sees itself as a
legal safe haven and it has welcomed thousands of leftist
refugees from dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s to
Iraqis fleeing the U.S.-led invasion and war after 2003.
The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index 2011 report
ranked Sweden first of 66 nations on fundamental legal rights.
THE RAPE CASE
That does not mean the rape accusations have not been
criticised. Assange faces questioning over incidents with two
women that involved a degree of consensual sex and other acts
some critics say would not be called rape in other countries.
Evan well-known feminist Naomi Wolf criticised the
international judicial hunt for Assange, writing that she
personally knew "1.3 million guys" with similar complaints made
against them by women.
A first prosecutor opened an investigation in 2010 on
allegations of rape after two women with whom Assange had sex
reported him to the police, only to drop the rape accusation and
pursue less serious allegations. Then a more senior prosecutor
reopened the rape case a couple of weeks later - giving fodder
to Assange's supporters who see a conspiracy against him.
Assange had sex with two women within days of each other
during a visit to Sweden in August 2010. Both women went to the
police after having had sex with Assange, wanting him to have an
In the case of the first woman - who helped Assange arrange
his visit to Sweden - he is alleged to have held her arms down
physically and spread her legs during what Assange says was
consensual sex in her apartment, where he was staying.
With the second woman, he is alleged to have had sex with
her while she was asleep and without wearing a condom after
consensual sex with a condom, according to copies of the police
questioning of the witnesses, of which Reuters has a copy.
The prosecutor's office has sought Assange for questioning
over suspected rape to a less severe degree, unlawful coercion
and two cases of sexual molestation.
The rape allegation is the most serious and if proven in
court could lead to up to four years in jail.
The lawyer for the two women stood by the allegations and
criticised Assange for not coming back to be questioned.
"It's an abuse of the asylum instrument, the purpose of
which is to protect people from persecution and torture ... It's
not about that here," Claes Borgstrom told Reuters.
"He doesn't risk being handed over to the United States for
torture or death penalty. He should be brought to justice in
Sweden. This is completely absurd."
At the same time, Assange might not have that much to worry
about, said law professor Christian Diesen. He noted that in
practice nine out of 10 cases of alleged rape are dropped by
prosecutors before coming to court.
"But where there are no witnesses, no pictures and no
technical evidence, only the accusation of the woman against the
man and he says that sex was consensual, then normally the
situation is that the word of the woman will not be enough for a
conviction," Diesen told said.
Assange's supporters say that the United States is preparing
a grand jury indictment in Virginia to extradite him and point
to the fact that Swedish prosecutors have refused to travel to
the United Kingdom to question Assange, as well as refusing to
discount any extradition. No public request for extradition has
been made by U.S. authorities.
Swedish courts make the decision on whether someone like
Assange should be extradited. The government can still reject a
Supreme Court decision to extradite but cannot force an
extradition if the court says no to the petition.
But Swedish legal experts said any extradition to the United
States would be a complicated and long drawn out process, whose
success is far from certain. Assange's fame would be an
"There would be a storm in the media worldwide stopping any
extradition. That would be the best guarantee he would have,
together with the formal conditions," said Sven-Erik Alhem, a
former prosecutor and a commentator on legal matters in Sweden.
Anne Ramberg, secretary general of the Swedish Bar
Association, an organisation of practising lawyers, said Sweden
could not send someone to the United States if that person faced
the death penalty or if the request was for a crime deemed to be
a political crime.
"The risk that he would be extradited from Sweden, in my
opinion, is very, very, very small. In any case, it is not a
bigger risk here than if he is in England," Ramberg said.
But Sweden's record is not always so clean.
Supporters of Assange point to Sweden going along with the
CIA in 2001 in sending two men to Egypt during the U.S. spy
agency's anti-terror campaign.
Both men were later released and given 3 million Swedish
crowns ($450,000) in compensation from the Swedish state.
Ironically, the U.S. State Department in its 2011 human
annual rights report also criticised Sweden for keeping
prisoners in pre-trial detention for too long and said prisons
subjected detainees "to extended periods in isolation and
limited their access to visitors, mail, and exercise".
For Assange's supporters, any extradition risk is too much.
"We know for sure that the risk is not zero. But how big the
risk is - if it's 10, 20, 50 or 100 percent, nobody knows," Per
Samuelsson, Assange's main Swedish lawyer, told Reuters.