By: Kim Hjelmgaard
Outrage and shock are spreading across Sweden over a case against three men of foreign origin arrested on suspicion of raping a woman and broadcasting it live on Facebook.
Swedish authorities said Wednesday that the case against the unidentified men was “growing stronger” amid an increasing backlash against immigrants in a country that took in more asylum seekers per capita than any other nation in Europe last year.
“There have been cases in Sweden before where crimes have been filmed and publicized on social media but not like this,” said Pontus Melander, chief prosecutor in the case in Uppsala, the city where the alleged incident took place in an apartment Jan. 22.
“I have seen different cases around the world — but not sexual cases,” he added.
The alleged crime in the Scandinavian country, which has one Europe’s highest recorded rates of sexual assaults, was live-streamed on a private Facebook page accessible to about 60,000 people.
It follows a year in which 163,000 people sought asylum in Sweden from conflict zones in North Africa and the Middle East — the most the country of 10 million has ever allowed in and double the number it accepted during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrators have been named by authorities. Melander said two of the three men arrested were born in Afghanistan and a third was a Swedish citizen, although his birthplace is not publicly known.
Investigators have not yet seen the full broadcast, including the part where the alleged gang rape took place, because they are waiting for Facebook to comply with a request to release the footage. Melander successfully argued Wednesday for the men to be detained for two more weeks while the investigation continues.
Prosecutors said the pair from Afghanistan deny taking part in a rape, a crime that carries a sentence of two to six years in Sweden. The sentence for aggravated rape is four to 10 years. The Swedish national was detained on suspicion of failing to reveal rape, a lesser crime he also denies. No decision to prosecute has been made.
It is not clear if the two Afghan men are recent asylum seekers. But witness statements published in Swedish news media have stoked anger at migrants as Europe grapples with what to do about hundreds of thousands of people flooding in from predominantly Muslim countries, a crisis that has fueled support for anti-immigration political parties from France to Germany to Holland.
“He tore off her clothes and lay down on top of her,” Josefine Lundgren, one of several witnesses who contacted police shortly after watching the incident happen in real-time, told Swedish media. Other witnesses have since come forward to say that a second, live broadcast showed the victim being forced to deny that she had been assaulted.
“There’s been total outrage about this case in Sweden,” said Jerzy Sarnecky, a criminologist at Stockholm University. “The fact that these men may not have been born in this country has made it of great interest to opponents of immigration. This kind of event fuels the xenophobic discussion.”
Allegations that rape is on the rise in Sweden as a result of the influx of asylum seekers routinely surfaces in the right-wing media. Shortly after the case was first revealed, the Breitbart website published a story quoting an economist who claimed that “offenders of foreign origin account for the majority of gang rapes.” Steve Bannon, a founder of Breitbart, is now President Trump’s senior strategist.
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Over the summer, police reported several dozen cases of sexual assault by gangs of foreign men at Swedish music festivals. The statements were later withdrawn.
Facebook said the vast majority of people who use Facebook Live do so to come together and share experiences in the moment with their friends and family. If someone violate’s the social networking firm’s community standards, the company interrupts the stream as quickly as possible and complies with all valid requests related to criminal cases.
Still, the company’s move to promote its user-generated service has not been trouble-free. Last month, four people in Chicago were indicted for attacking a teenager with mental disabilities on Facebook Live. In July, shootings in Norfolk, Va., and St. Paul were streamed live on Facebook.
Sweden has about 47 reported rape cases per 100,000 people, according to a 2014 survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which provides data about the 28-nation EU, including Sweden. That compares to about three reported rape cases per 100,000 in Portugal.
Sarnecky of Stockholm University said Sweden has a much broader definition of rape, which accounts for some of that difference, and that rape rates across countries are not easily compared.
Thirty-one percent of Swedish woman said they feel unsafe going out at night even in their own neighborhoods, according to a recent survey published by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. That is about the same amount — 30% — of immigrants, men and woman, who fear for their safety when going out at night in Sweden.
“My heart broke,” said Linda Johansson, another witness of the live broadcast. “They put the girl in front of the camera, but the guy who filmed tried to persuade her to deny she had been raped,” she told Swedish Television News. “He was putting words into her mouth. He was taunting and laughing throughout the whole clip.”