In which I think about how problematic it can be when the news is complicated

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Julian Assange, Mr Wikileaks, is currently holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, guarded by the massed ranks of Ecuador’s diplomatic mission to the UK, the Metropolitan Police, and some protestors, who may be related to Occupy London, but may not. This is just the sort of thing I feel I probably ought to have an opinion on. Generally I can generate an opinion on most things. I think that banning smoking in public buildings was a Good Thing. I think that the Health Reform Bill was a Bad Thing. I think that wearing black with navy makes you look like a bruise. See – I’m a barely controlled fountain of random thoughts and attitudes.

But on Mr Assange’s current predicament I’m struggling. I think I think he probably should be extradited to Sweden. As countries go, there are plenty of places with less transparent judicial systems, and the Swedish courts and prosecution service (after long deliberation) have decided there are sufficient grounds to issue a European Arrest Warrant to seek Assange’s extradition on sexual assault charges. I don’t think that access to money and high profile supporters should make answering potentially serious criminal charges optional. I do think that sexual assault and rape are globally massively under-reported and under-prosecuted. I do think there are two women in Sweden who have effectively been tried by Assange’s supporters and found guilty without getting their own day in court. I do think that all of that feels very wrong.

But then, what if that’s horribly naive of me? What if Assange and his supporters are right, and the assault allegations are nothing more than a smokescreen to ease Assange’s later extradition to the USA? America is famously hardcore about pursuing perceived threats to her national interests.  We’re talking about a country that did a whole invasion, apparently because the President was cross that when his Daddy was President the job got left unfinished. We’re talking about the country that has already massively overreacted to WikiLeaks’ publication of confidential diplomatic communications (a publication that you can argue was more embarrassing than actually damaging –  the bulk of the material was little more than embassy gossip.) The US already has the alleged source of the diplomatic cable leaks, Bradley Manning, in custody, and WikiLeaks has found that the number of companies prepared to provide technological or financial infrastructure has suddenly, and markedly, dwindled. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the US would go to extreme lengths to get Assange onto US soil.

But then, why wouldn’t they have just applied to extradite him from the UK themselves? Why go to the trouble of having him sent to Sweden first? The UK has an extradition treaty with the US. The British government has been criticised in recent years for being too willing to co-operate with US extradition requests, notably in the case of Gary McKinnon. And why run for the Ecuadorean embassy when Ecuador also has a valid extradition treaty with the US?

And Ecuador have decided that there are sufficient grounds to grant Assange asylum. Presumably they’ve considered the situation more carefully than just watching a bit of News 24 and reading about it on Twitter. Ecuador are in the process of negotiating a new trade agreement with Europe, so you would think that it wouldn’t be a time to antagonise the UK and Sweden if they could avoid it. The apparent threat by the UK to enter the Ecuadorean embassy also seems disproportionate, but did they actually threaten to do that? The text of the letter in question is here. It’s strongly worded but is it a direct threat? I don’t know. Maybe in the opaque world of diplomatic communication it is.

And Sweden won’t guarantee not to extradite Assange onwards to the US. Maybe they should  promise that, but then again, they probably can’t. The don’t have Assange on Swedish soil, and the USA hasn’t initiated extradition proceedings, so how can they make promises about how they’d behave in a set of circumstances that haven’t yet occurred? Sweden have also been reluctant to consider questioning Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy, on the grounds that this is just another criminal case. In their view there is no reason for special treatment.

The problem here is that there are too many things that I don’t quite understand, and despite the massive amount of media coverage of the Assange case, there’s not a lot of light being cast on these questions by the press. You can find second by second updates on who’s outside the embassy now, what the Foreign Office is saying, what Assange is saying, what the protesters outside are saying, what the Ecuadorean government are saying, but it’s much harder to find in depth analysis of Assange’s claims that he’s the victim of a witchhunt, or consideration of the past record of the nations involved on extradition and human rights.

So should Assange be extradited to Sweden? It’s complicated, but yes. I think so. Probably, because without clear hard evidence that he should be treated as a special case, there’s no justification to do so. Justice has to be blind and has to be applied evenly. Not facing sexual assault charges because you’ve upset the American government is unfair. Not facing sexual assault charges because you’ve become a cause celebre is also unfair. I think, but it’s entirely possible that today I might be wrong.

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5 thoughts on “In which I think about how problematic it can be when the news is complicated

    John said:
    August 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

    I don’t know whether these accusations are a smokescreen for US intervention in this case, but I think that Assange is actually pretty wise to stay away from Sweden. Yes the judicial system isn’t the worst in the world but in this case it is very biased. There is a good article written by two female journalists in Dagens Nyheter, one of the better Swedish papers here…

    http://www.dn.se/debatt/fallet-assange-ett-hot-mot-den-svenska-rattsstaten

    They explain that two women had sex with Assange on separate occasions and then asked the same policewoman friend whether they could make Assange take an HIV test. The policewoman then decided that Assange had raped these women. There was a trial and the case was laid down due to lack of any kind of case. The next day, after a bit of shiftying around of the judges and prosecutors the case was reopened and accusations remade. This did coincide with when Sweden refused to allow the US to have its own way with all sorts of national security stuff.

    Anyway, Assange was reasonable and stayed in Sweden for 5 weeks waiting to be prosecuted, after which he asked for permission to travel abroad and that was granted. The media portrayed this as if he was fleeing guiltily and an international warrant for his arrest was issued. Assange made himself available for trial via phone, internet but the new prosecutor was adamant that he must come back to Sweden and was even quoted saying “Even if evidence shows I’m wrong I’m not changing my mind”. Nice.

    Unfortunately there is a big problem with rape allegations in Sweden and they all go in the womans favour to such an extent that “I changed my mind a little bit afterwards” would probably still count as rape.

    “Ett maskineri som ser vanliga svenska män som potentiella våldtäktsmän och som redan dömt Julian Assange för sexbrott, innan någon rättegång ägt rum”

    “A machinery that sees ordinary Swedish men as potential rapists judged Assange for sex crimes before a trial took place”.

    Guilty or not of any crime, Wikileaks aside, he’s going to prison if he comes back to Sweden….

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      alisonmay responded:
      August 20, 2012 at 10:08 am

      Thanks for the comment John – I was hoping you might be able to provide a perspective on the Swedish process.

      One thing that’s really clear in this case is how focussed a lot of the media attention is on the narrative rather than the detail or the underlying issues. And the problem with stories is that you can tell them from different perspectives and generate different sympathies when you do. Then you end up with a situation where people are commenting/tweeting etc based on what they believe or have been led to believe. I have no idea whether Assange is guilty of sexual assault – the fact that the case was initially rejected doesn’t rule it out but the fact that an accusation was made doesn’t make it true. Clearly though in any case with this level of discussion and media interest a fair trial is going to be excedeingly difficult to provide.

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    Len said:
    August 20, 2012 at 10:48 am

    I agree it’s complicated, but it is difficult to understand why a foreigner comes to our country and then stays, seemingly, because he is still facing accusations in Sweden. The Wikileaks business did upset the Yanks, of course, and you can never trust them not to use some convoluted plan to snare an “enemy”.

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    John said:
    August 20, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Alison – your blogg fuelled the lunch discussion here. The general opinion was that he should just come back to Sweden as he’ll get a fair trial. It seems the Swedes faith in the system is unshakable, it can only have everyone’s best interests at heart.

    Len – a foreigner goes to Britain and doesn’t leave because they associate Britain with justice and think it is the place most likely to be fair to them. I’d say this is a correct assumption. My dad would say the Brits are all pushovers. Either way it’s not that difficult so see why anyone facing perceived persecution (or anyone with a guilty conscience) would decide to hole up in Britain.

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    Bob said:
    October 28, 2012 at 4:35 am

    He should not be extradited to Sweden, and you can find out why in the e-book, “Julian Assange in Sweden, what really happened” by Guy Sims.

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