Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The sheer weirdness of l'affair Assange

I don't think I've written about Julian Assange before. Wikileaks as a phenomenon seemed to me to be a not entirely benign development in journalism - I'm not an absolutist when it comes to freedom of information. Some things need a bit of shadow to work properly, and diplomacy is the ne plus ultra example of this. However, it also seemed like an inevitable development, and attempts, by the US Government in particular, to reverse the tide towards freedom seemed a bit like trying to get the toothpaste back in the bottle.

But here's the thing - the argument about Wikileaks is only tangentially connected to the argument about Julian Assange. I don't propose to delve too much into the ins-and-outs of the allegations against him. If you've still not caught up with these, then go to David Allen Green's post, or Peter's, both of which are excellent and clear-headed summaries of the legal position as it stands. The short version is that Julian Assange is wanted by the Swedish authorities, so that they can arrest him for rape. Sweden have issued a European Arrest Warrant, and the validity of this warrant has been upheld by the English courts. Pretty much end of story.

Suspected rapist flees his accusers. First to the UK, where he tries every legal avenue to avoid extradition back to his accusers. Then by jumping bail and seeking refuge in the embassy of an authoritarian South American country - which promptly offers him aslyum in the name of the freedom of the press. This, incidentally, from a regime so generally enamoured of such freedom that it has pushed for a law prohibiting the news media from "either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message." Freedom!

It takes a particular type of person to take this story of an accused rapist on the lam, and turn it into a stirring story of political persecution, and freedom of speech. Seumas Milne, for example (note, by the way, the use of the "not been charged" fallacy in the second paragraph). Or Laurie Penny. Try this paragraph:

The answer is, of course, that Julian Assange should be held to account, of course he should, and he should be held to account in a system where due process means something and women are respected, and currently that system does not exist. Come back to me when the 19,000 annual sex attacks committed by members of the US Army and private contractors against their fellow soldiers are prosecuted. Come back to me when Private Bradley Manning is free.

Got that, Swedish women? You can see justice done for a crime committed in Sweden, only when the USA sorts out their military, law enforcement and legal systems. It's a remarkable leap of logic - man should not be tried for rape, because women aren't respected. As the marvelous Sadie Smith would say, "Why should I tidy my bedroom when the world's in such a mess?!"

Here's the thing. There's a semi-respectable argument that the US legal system is so broken (and it is) that it would be impossible for Julian Assange to face a fair trial there. I think that's a fair point, and I suspect a Swedish court may well find it persuasive if it were presented as a reason to refuse extradition to the US (possibly less so in the UK, because the extradition treaty between the US and the UK doesn't really allow for such niceties). But that is an argument why extradition from Sweden (or the UK) to the US should be resisted. It's not an argument why Assange should escape trial for rape in Sweden.


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