By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 10:35 AM
PARIS- The Swedish Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder and guiding spirit, must appear before a magistrate in Stockholm to answer accusations of rape and sexual harassment brought by two Swedish women.
Following the court's refusal to hear an appeal of the warrant, Swedish authorities said they were fine-tuning a "red notice" for Assange's arrest that is being relayed to member countries by Interpol, the international anti-crime cooperative.
Police in Britain, where Assange is believed to located, had said they could not act on the mandate without more specifics on the potential charges and the penalties Assange might face under Swedish law.
Assange, a lanky, 39-year-old Australian, was staying out of sight as diplomats and government officials around the world dealt with the embarrassment caused by a giant Wikileaks dump of confidential State Department cables. Two British newspapers reported he was in Britain and police there knew how to reach him. But a Wikileaks spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson, told the Reuters news agency that Assange was in a secret location working on his next revelations.
Wherever he is, it seems likely that the pale-faced Assange--a self-appointed knight-errant who has been doing battle with official secrecy since 2006--is savoring the ruckus caused by the publication of thousands of classified documents. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent much of her ongoing foreign trip smoothing feathers ruffled by the frank U.S. diplomatic traffic that sometimes painted foreign leaders in an unfavorable light.
The Obama administration, saying the document dump endangered lives, has launched a criminal investigation, suggesting Assange might be charged with violating U.S. secrecy laws or even espionage. But Wikileaks' triumph seems more immediately endangered by the simultaneous-although apparently unconnected-Swedish rape and harassment allegations.
The charges were brought by two Swedish women in August after what both described as consensual sexual encounters in Sweden that escalated into something unwanted and illegal. Assange, who has long expressed fear of reprisal from Washington and other governments, denied anything but consensual sex and suggested that the two women were part of a plot to smear his name and undermine his campaign to get government secrets into the open.
Before the women came forward, Assange had sought a Swedish residence visa, hoping to benefit from the country's strong protection of press freedoms. But since then, he has been traveling constantly and staying below the radar, popping up in London, appearing on a videoconference in Amman, Jordan, and answering questions from Time magazine via Skype, reluctant to show himself in flesh and blood.
In the Time Q&A, he said Clinton should resign because of her cable suggesting that U.S. diplomats surreptitiously gather personal data on their counterparts, something Assange said would violate the Vienna Convention on diplomatic activity. Gibbs dismissed that idea as "ridiculous" and said the problem is rather that Assange violated the diplomatic convention.
An underground existence is nothing new for Assange, his associates have pointed out. Driven by his anti-secrecy crusade and convinced that governments are out to get him, he has long avoided fixed residences, borrowing travel funds and sleeping on other people's couches between marathon sessions at the computer.
WikiLeaks announced via Twitter, meanwhile, that it has been the target of repeated hacker attacks since the publication of more than 250,000 leaked State Department communications, a claim in line with Assange's frequent assertions that U.S. intelligence agencies are intruding on his work.
While Assange stayed out of sight, his Stockholm lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig, filed an appeal Wednesday against the Swedish government's arrest order. At the same time, his London attorney, Mark Stephens, said the Stockholm prosecutor's tactics show that she is out to get Assange for more than legal reasons.
"Since Sweden is a civilized country, I have to come to the conclusion that this is persecution and not prosecution," Stephens said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
One news report suggested that Assange is considering asking for asylum in Switzerland. But that country is known for keeping secrets, so that seemed an unlikely solution. Moreover, WikiLeaks has announced that its next big project is to reveal the confidential documents of a major bank, believed to be Bank of America, which could make the land of numbered accounts an awkward haven for Assange.
A surprising possibility seemed to arise Monday, when a deputy foreign minister of Ecuador, Kintto Lucas, said Assange would be welcome in that South American country. "We are going to invite him to come to Ecuador so he can freely present the information he possesses and all the documentation, not just over the Internet but in a variety of public forms," Lucas announced.
By Wednesday, however, that idea had fallen apart. President Rafael Correa said neither he nor his foreign minister had approved the invitation to Assange and gave a strong impression that they never would.