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Sweden-Israel free speech row prompts lawsuits

Diplomatic, legal row over organ harvesting article continues

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Sweden's fervent defense of free speech has sparked a diplomatic storm with Israel over the government's refusal to condemn an article accusing Israeli soldiers of smuggling dead Palestinians' organs.

The row is likely to overshadow a visit to Israel by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt next month, right in the midst of Sweden's presidency of the European Union, a key player in the Middle East peace process.

Many ordinary Swedes back the government's stance of not condemning the piece by Aftonbladet, the country's top-selling daily, according to a survey released on Wednesday.

In an online poll answered by 24,000 readers of the national daily Svenska Dagbladet since Sunday, 65 percent said they backed the position taken by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's center-right government.

We are not asking the Swedish government for an apology, we are asking for their condemnation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

A diplomatic row

Israel has urged the Swedish government to condemn the "anti-Semitic" article, which claimed that Israeli soldiers snatched Palestinian youths to steal their organs and returned their dismembered bodies days later.

"We are not asking the Swedish government for an apology, we are asking for their condemnation," a senior official quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as telling ministers during a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.

But Sweden, which was one of the first countries in the world to pass a law guaranteeing freedom of expression in 1766, has refused to condemn the tabloid.

"It's important for me to say that you cannot turn to the Swedish government and ask it to violate the Swedish constitution," Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said on Monday.

The only Swedish condemnation has come from its ambassador to Israel, Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, who slammed the piece as "shocking and appalling."

It's important for me to say that you cannot turn to the Swedish government and ask it to violate the Swedish constitution

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt

Internal politics

But the Swedish government distanced itself from Bonnier's remarks, stressing they should only be seen in a local context.

Urban Ahlin, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats, has described the row as "a minor diplomatic crisis between Sweden and Israel" and has called upon Bildt to appear before the parliament's constitutional committee to explain Bonnier's comments.

In his complaint, Ahlin defended Sweden's freedom of the press and expression laws and stressed that "it is not the government's business to speak out about whether something is suitable to print."

Ahlin wants Bildt to explain if all Swedish embassies had been sufficiently briefed on freedom of expression and if those instructions had been followed in the case of Bonnier.

The foreign minister will not appear before the committee before next year.

Latest in a series of claims

The article was published in the wake of revelations about an American Jew arrested for illicit organ trafficking in July.

This was not the first time allegations Israel illegally harvested organs from Palestinians have surfaced.

Shortly before his death Yasser Arafat told the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera that Israel had extracted organs from children killed by the IDF. In 2002, the Tehran Times published a report by Iran’s official IRNA news agency claiming that Israel’s health minister, Nessim Dahhan, admitted that organs were taken from Palestinians killed by the Israeli army.

Legal battles

Faced with a political impasse, some are trying to launch a legal battle.

Swedish Chancellor of Justice Goeran Lambertz received two written requests on Tuesday asking to investigate whether the report amounted to racial agitation contrary to Sweden's freedom of expression legislation.

Lambertz is the only prosecutor in the Scandinavian country who can take legal action in cases concerning free speech.

But Aftonbladet’s editor-in-chief Jan Helin has denied accusations of anti-Semitism and said in his blog that the article was relevant.

"I'm not an anti-Semite. I'm the editor-in-chief who has allowed the publication of a culture article because it asked a number of relevant questions,” he wrote on Monday.

Meanwhile an Israeli lawyer filed suit against the newspaper in New York claiming it slandered Jews and Israelis, including himself, and demanding $7.5 million, though experts told the TT news agency that his case was unlikely to get a hearing because it lacks jurisdiction.

Over the weekend thousands of Israelis signed an online petition to boycott Swedish furniture store IKEA and other Scandinavian countries including Volvo, Absolut Vodka and fashion retailer H&M, according to local press reports.

I'm the editor-in-chief who has allowed the publication of a culture article because it asked a number of relevant questions

Jan Helin, Aftonbladet

Defending freedom of speech

Swedish national media have been highly critical of the article but nevertheless defend its right to be published.

The Dagens Nyheter newspaper devoted three columns to a philosopher criticizing Aftonbladet's journalistic methods rather than the decision to publish itself.

Svenska Dagbladet published a lengthy editorial from the liberal Haaretz daily, and also asked six major Swedish newspapers if they would have published such a story.

Five refused but the majority agreed that Aftonbladet had not violated the country's press freedom laws.

Expressen, its major tabloid rival, was vigorous in its defense of the decision to publish.

(With AFP)