/ 24 August 2012

Assange correct to fear extradition

Julian Assange addresses the media from the balcony of the Ecuador Embassy in London
Julian Assange addresses the media from the balcony of the Ecuador Embassy in London

Considering he made his name with the biggest leak of secret government documents in history, you might imagine there would at least be some residual concern for Julian Assange among those trading in the freedom-of-information business.

This is a man, after all, who has yet to be charged, let alone convicted, of anything. But as far as the bulk of the press is concerned, Assange is nothing but a "monstrous narcissist", a bail-jumping "sex pest" and an exhibitionist maniac. After Ecuador granted him political asylum and Assange delivered a "tirade" from its London embassy's balcony, fire was turned on the country's progressive president, Rafael Correa, ludicrously branded a corrupt "dictator" with an "iron grip" on a benighted land.

The ostensible reason for this venom is, of course, Assange's attempt to resist extradition to Sweden – and onward extradition to the United States – over sexual-assault allegations, including from newspapers whose record of covering rape and violence against women is shaky, to put it politely. But as the row over his embassy refuge has escalated into a major diplomatic stand-off, with the whole of South America piling in behind Ecuador, such posturing looks increasingly specious.

Can anyone seriously believe the dispute would have gone global, or that the British government would have made its asinine threat to suspend the Ecuadorean embassy's ­diplomatic status and enter it by force, or that scores of police would have surrounded the building if it was all about one man wanted for questioning over sex-crime allegations in Stockholm?

To get a grip on what is actually going on, rewind to WikiLeaks's explosive release of secret US military reports and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables two years ago. They disgorged devastating evidence of US war crimes and collusion with death squads in Iraq on an industrial scale, the machinations and lies of the US's wars and allies, illegal US spying on United Nations officials, as well as a compendium of official corruption and deceit across the world.

Wikileaks fuel
WikiLeaks provided fuel for the Arab uprisings. It did not just provide information for citizens to hold governments everywhere to account, but crucially opened up the exercise of US global power to democratic scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the US government made it clear it regarded WikiLeaks as a serious threat to its interests from the start, denouncing the release of confidential US cables as a "criminal act".

Vice-President Joe Biden has compared Assange to a "hi-tech ­terrorist". Shock jocks and neocons have called for him to be hunted down and killed. Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old soldier accused of passing the largest trove of US documents to WikiLeaks who has been held in conditions described as "cruel and inhuman" by the UN special rapporteur on torture, faces up to 52 years in prison.

The US administration this week claimed the WikiLeaks founder was trying to deflect attention from his Swedish case by making "wild allegations" about US intentions. But the idea that the threat of US extradition is some paranoid WikiLeaks fantasy is absurd. A grand jury in Virginia has been preparing a case against Assange and WikiLeaks for espionage. A leak earlier this year suggested that the US government had already issued a secret, sealed indictment against Assange and Australian diplomats have reported that he is the target of an investigation that is "unprecedented both in its scale and its nature".

It would be bizarre to expect a state, which over the past decade has kidnapped, tortured and illegally incarcerated its enemies, real or imagined, on a global scale – and continues to do so under President Barack Obama – to walk away from what Hillary Clinton described as an "attack on the international community". In the meantime, the US authorities are presumably banking on seeing Assange further discredited in Sweden.

None of that should detract from the seriousness of the rape allegations made against Assange, for which he should clearly answer and, if charges are brought, stand trial. The question is how to achieve justice for the women involved while protecting Assange (and other whistle-blowers) from punitive extradition to a legal system that could potentially land him in a US prison cell for decades.

The politicisation of the Swedish case was clear, from the initial leak of the allegations to the prosecutor's decision to seek Assange's extradition for questioning, described by a former Stockholm prosecutor as "unreasonable, unfair and disproportionate" when the authorities have been happy to interview suspects abroad in more serious cases.

And given the context, it is also hardly surprising that sceptics have linked one of those making the accusations with US-funded anti-Cuban opposition groups, or that campaigners such as the London-based Women Against Rape have expressed scepticism at the "unusual zeal" with which rape allegations were pursued against Assange in a country where rape convictions have fallen. The danger, of course, is that the murk around this case plays into a misogynist culture in which rape victims are not believed.

But why, Assange's critics meanwhile charge, would he be more likely to be extradited to the US from Sweden than from Britain, Washington's patsy, notorious for its one-sided extradition arrangements. There are specific risks in Sweden, for example, the fast-track "temporary surrender" extradition agreement it has with the US. But the real point is that Assange is in danger of extradition in both countries, which is why Ecuador was right to offer him protection.

The solution is obvious. It is the one that Ecuador is proposing and London and Stockholm are resisting. If the Swedish government pledged to block the extradition of Assange to the US for any WikiLeaks-related offence, which it has the power to do, and Britain agreed not to sanction extradition to a third country once Swedish proceedings were over, then justice could be served.

But with loyalty to the US on the line, Assange should not expect to leave the embassy any time soon. – © Guardian News & Media 2012