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.