WikiLeaks builds a legal shield in Sweden

Posted at 08/26/10 10:56 PM

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Two young Swedes hammer away at computers in a space that is part garage, part college dorm, littered with cables, Coke cans and an empty bottle of ketchup.

It looks like an unlikely place for the U.S. Pentagon to be worried about.

But this cramped room in a Stockholm suburb acts as a nerve centre for WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website which has published thousands of secret documents on the war in Afghanistan and has promised to post many more.

The site's elusive founder, Julian Assange, has been spending lots of time lately in Sweden, whose media laws are among the world's most protective for journalists. WikiLeaks did not respond to a request for an interview with Assange.

Media commentators and lawyers say WikiLeaks needs a safe haven, particularly after it attracted the ire of the Pentagon when it released secret U.S. military files last month.

The choice of Sweden gives WikiLeaks a better shot at fulfulling the 39-year old Australian's self-proclaimed mission to make the world more transparent.

Jonathan Coad, head of litigation at London-based Swan Turton, says it would be hard for the U.S. government to challenge Sweden's free speech act.

"I don't think there is a mechanism that allows America to do anything about this," Coad said, citing the difficulty in preventing leaks in an online world of global publishing.

Sweden has also suddenly become a source of trouble for Assange after two women filed complaints of molestation.

One complaint led to an arrest warrant for suspected rape, but that was quickly dropped after an initial investigation. The prosecutor's office is still pursuing the second complaint.

Assange, who has denied the accusations, has said he was warned by Australian intelligence that he could face a campaign to discredit him. The chief prosecutor and a lawyer for the two women have dismissed such talk.

Still, Assange is finding plenty of friends in Sweden.

The Pirate Party, whose platform calls for reform of copyright law, has agreed to host WikiLeaks' servers.

"Anyone who wants to attack WikiLeaks will now have to attack a political party in Sweden, which raises the bar for any legal action against them," Pirate Party leader Rick Falkvinge told Reuters.

More leaks

Hidden behind a large black door, the server room is accessed by walking through a parking lot and down an alley. The servers are rented from a web hotel called PRQ.

PRQ's owner, Mikael Viborg, has never met Assange.

But a week before the launch of the website's "Afghan War Diary" -- described as one of the largest security breaches in U.S. military history -- Viborg received a request for a big boost in capacity.

"They increased it about 10-fold," he said. "They were probably expecting heavy traffic."

WikiLeaks, which is not connected to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, has said it has 15,000 more documents.

It released a memo from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency this week, although that document, which talked about possible perceptions of U.S. policy, did not generate much controversy.

WikiLeaks also leaked in April a classified U.S. military video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack which killed a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff.

As Assange and his site become more active, Sweden offers tough laws to protect freedom of speech. For instance, it makes source protection a legal obligation for journalists.

Kristinn Hraffnson, who speaks on behalf of the website from nearby Iceland, said WikiLeaks wants a publishing certificate for Sweden, which is needed to receive journalistic protection.

Assange also recently signed a contract to write a column for Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.

David vs Goliath?

Lawyers said WikiLeaks could still face legal wrangles if challenged to reveal sources or hand over material.

Per Eric Alvsing, a lawyer at Swedish firm Vinge, said an informant's identity is protected by the constitution but anything considered libellous or concerning national security could allow for exceptions.

"Our conclusion is that even if WikiLeaks has obtained a Swedish certificate of publication, they have not obtained bullet-proof protection," Alvsing said.

Whether WikiLeaks ever does get tested in a Swedish court its strategy appears to be to use anything at its disposal to further its goals.

"WikiLeaks is using its power and practical and legal invulnerability -- which it thinks it has -- to change the course of history," said Coad of British firm Swan Turton.

"It's extraordinary -- a David and Goliath battle."