assange starmer
Julian Assange and Keir Starmer
As head of the UK Crown Prosecution Service, the newly elected British PM Keir Starmer played a key role in setting in motion the infernal legal machinery that crushed Assange for 14 years

Even though Julian Assange was finally freed last month, after a 14-year-long ordeal, many myths still endure about the whole affair. One of these is that the case concerning Assange's alleged rape of two girls in Sweden, in 2010, never went to trial because Assange evaded justice. In reality, Assange, who was then in the UK, made himself available for questioning via several means, by telephone or video conference, or in person in the Australian embassy. But the Swedish authorities insisted on questioning him in Sweden. Assange's legal team countered that extradition of a suspect simply to question him — not to send him to trial, as he had not been charged — was a disproportionate measure.

This was more than a technicality: Assange feared that if he were extradited to Sweden, the latter's authorities would extradite him to the US, where he had good reason to believe that he wouldn't be given a fair trial. Sweden, after all, always refused to provide Assange a guarantee of non-extradition to the US — the reason why, when in 2012 the British Supreme Court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden, Assange sought political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. From there, however, he continued to make known his availability to be interrogated by the Swedish authorities inside the embassy, but they never replied.

Thanks to a FOIA investigation by the Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi, it would later emerge that a crucial role in getting Sweden to pursue this highly unusual line of conduct was played by the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the principal public agency for conducting criminal prosecutions, then led by one Keir Starmer. In early 2011, while Assange was still under house arrest, Paul Close, a British lawyer with the CPS, gave his Swedish counterparts his opinion on the case, apparently not for the first time. "My earlier advice remains, that in my view it would not be prudent for the Swedish authorities to try to interview the defendant in the UK", Close wrote. Why did the Crown Prosecution Service advise the Swedes against the only legal strategy that could have brought the case to a rapid resolution, namely questioning Julian Assange in London, rather than insisting on his extradition?

In hindsight, it seems clear that the CPS's aim was precisely that of keeping the case in a legal limbo, and Assange trapped in Britain, for as long as possible, especially considering how shaky the case against Assange was in the first place. After all, what better outcome for Assange's enemies than keeping him under investigation for years, suspected of being a rapist but never either charged or cleared once and for all, thus justifying his arbitrary detention? The CPS's hostile treatment of Assange, the citizen of an allied country, continued even after he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, for example by insisting on denying him "safe passage" in UK territory in order to be treated in a hospital for a shoulder problem.

A year after Assange had taken refuge in the embassy, it appears that the Swedish prosecutor was considering dropping the extradition proceedings, but she was deterred from doing so by the CPS. The prosecutor was concerned, among other things, about the mounting costs of costs of the Scotland Yard agents guarding the embassy day and night. But for the British authorities this was not a problem; they replied that they "do not consider costs are a relevant factor in this matter".

As a result of the Swedish authorities' highly unusual behaviour, Assange had, by then, been arbitrarily and illegitimately forced into detention for seven years, as was concluded even by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

What role, if any, did Keir Starmer play in all this as head of the CPS? During the period when the body was overseeing Assange's extradition to Sweden, Starmer made several trips to Washington. US records show Starmer met with Attorney General Eric Holder and a host of American and British national security officials. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the British media organisation Declassified UK requested the itinerary for each of Starmer's four trips to Washington with details of his official meetings, including any briefing notes. CPS replied that all the documents relative to Starmer's trips to Washington had been destroyed. Asked for clarification — and whether the destruction of documents was routine — the CPS did not respond.

Similarly, when Maurizi submitted a FOIA request to the CPS to shed light on the correspondence between Paul Close and the Swedish authorities, she was also told that all the data associated with Paul Close's account had been deleted when he retired and could not be recovered. This only beckoned more questions: why did the CPS destroy key documents on a high-profile, ongoing case? And what did the CPS destroy exactly, and on whose instructions? The CPS added that Close's email account had been deleted "in accordance with standard procedure". However, Maurizi would later discover that this procedure was by no means standard. The destruction of key emails was distinctly suspicious.

Since then, Maurizi has been waging a years-long legal fight to access documents related to the CPS and Assange case, but she has been systematically stonewalled by CPS — even despite a judge order ordering the CPS to come clean about the destruction of key documents on Assange. One cannot help but wonder: what are they trying to hide? It's hard to shake the conclusion that the real purpose of the Swedish investigation, and of CPS's unusual behaviour, was simply to keep Assange detained for as long as necessary to get him extradited to the US.

Now that one of the key people behind all this has just been elected prime minister, it's even less likely that we'll ever learn the truth. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if releasing Assange just before the election wasn't a way — for Starmer and everyone else involved — to make this story go away once and for all.