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Thursday, August 16, 2012 


Shall we get an ad hominem out of the way first? That Julian Assange, he's a bit of a tit, isn't he?

Right, down to business. To say there are as many layers to the whole Assange circus as there are in an onion is to probably understate things. Quite clearly, he has a case to answer in Sweden. For this to have all been a set-up or ruse by two women serving US interests, as some of the more ridiculous Assange defenders have claimed, is absurd. Like the claims from Mohamed Fayed and others about the "plot" to kill Princess Diana, which would have been foiled had Di deigned to wear her seat belt, this nefarious scheme would have failed completely had Assange decided to keep Mr Happy in his trousers.

This isn't to say there aren't odd things about the whole Swedish approach which invite suspicion. There has been no unanswerable reason given why the Swedish authorities have repeatedly declined the offer from Assange to interview him here, especially when we're told that is all the Swedes want with him; he has not been charged, and there is no indication that he will be. The expert opinion written by Stockholm's former chief district prosecutor outlines some of the anomalies: the naming of Assange to begin with; the failure to interview Assange while he was still in Sweden, despite the prosecutor taking over the case nearly a month before he left; and the police interviewing the complainants together rather than separately. Nonetheless, the UK courts have all decided that Assange can be deported to Sweden and that these anomalies, such as they are, are irrelevant.

Likewise, despite the United States having not yet begun proceedings against Assange is not to say that they will not, and it's hardly unreasonable that Assange fails to believe that Wikileaks would be treated effectively as a newspaper under US law, as some believe it would be. One only has to look at the treatment of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of supplying the diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, to see that were they to move against Assange he would hardly be handled with kid gloves. Some on the right have openly called for him to face the death penalty, while even the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein has said he should be prosecuted for espionage.

This doesn't however answer the obvious question of why Sweden, rather than any other country, including ourselves, would be most likely to deport Assange to the United States. Indeed, as Karin Olsson points out, if the death penalty were an option should Assange be charged in the US, then any member state of the European Convention on Human Rights would be unable to extradite him. Moreover, it's also likely that Assange would be extradited quicker from this country to the US than from Sweden; while Sweden has an extradition treaty with the US, it's far more complex than our own. In any case, any moves against Assange would undoubtedly be challenged under the ECHR, meaning it would be years rather than months before any deportation could take place.

All the same, you can understand why Assange has sought and acquired diplomatic asylum from Ecuador. To assign him the best possible motives, he's right to fear that he could be extradited on the spurious grounds of either espionage or endangering national security. Despite all the shrieking from the US, not just on the diplomatic cables but also on the files from Afghanistan and Iraq, there is very little to no evidence to suggest anyone has come to harm as a result of the release of the cables, including that of the full unexpurgated cables, although this is obviously difficult to confirm. If anything, there is a case to be made that their release was an important factor in the launching of the Tunisian uprising, and in turn the whole Arab spring. The release of the "Collateral Murder" video exposed the deaths of two Reuters journalists at the hands of the US military in Iraq, while the diplomatic cables to pick just one revelation showed how Saudi Arabia was urging an attack on Iran.

At worst though, Assange's motives are base. If the allegations against him are true, then his image as the foremost freedom fighter of the Anonymous generation is sullied forever. The reality is that Wikileaks is now a busted flush, and it's likely that Assange will have to dine out for the rest of his days on just a frenetic year of activity. Found guilty of rape and he's effectively a goner, as much as you can admire his motives.

And so we come to our own role in all of this. Embarrassing as it is that Assange was able to skip bail and seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, the threats made against the embassy, and they clearly are threats, are outrageous. As Juan Cole points out, it was only last year that William Hague was castigating the Iranians for the state-approved invasion of our embassy in Tehran. Either invoking the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 or, an even more drastic step, derecognising Ecuador in order to invade the embassy and arrest Assange would set an incredibly dangerous precedent, one that would make the occupants of UK embassies worldwide fear that they could be targeted should relations between ourselves and their hosts disintegrate. Craig Murray states he has received information that we intend to arrest Assange in the embassy if necessary, and his sources are usually sound.

Ecuador's own deficiencies in the way of press freedom are irrelevant. Much as we do have an obligation to the Swedes, to violate the Vienna Convention would be a far more dangerous step than failing to extradite a man who has only been accused of rather than charged with rape. It's also highly unlikely this would create a precedent where other alleged offenders would seek shelter in embassies: there simply aren't that many Assanges around, and few states will offer them asylum in any case when there isn't the threat of persecution on political grounds involved. Sweden clearly cannot give any guarantees to Assange when the Americans have not sought to bring charges against him, and it's also apparent that there's almost no way Assange can travel to Ecuador when we're denying him passage. Without arbitration at the International Court of Justice, which is one viable option, then it seems dear old Julian will have to make himself comfortable in the flat at 3 Hans Crescent Knightsbridge. And he could be there for a while: Birhanu Bayeh, who sought refuge at the Italian embassy in Ethiopia in 1991, is still there today.

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