The UK should resist the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States. But what should be done about the sexual assault claims in Sweden?
Arrested in London on 11 April, after Ecuador withdrew Assange’s diplomatic asylum status, he was forced to leave his embassy home of 7 years and threatened with extradition to the US.
Soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch condemned Washinton’s efforts to apprehend Assange on the grounds that it threatens press freedom. Amnesty International fears that the suspect could face “detention conditions that would violate the absolute prohibition of torture”.
The news seemed to confirm every paranoid fear about American power. At the same time, there have been calls to reopen the Swedish investigation into the sexual assault claims against Assange.
“If Sweden decides to pursue an extradition of Mr Assange from the UK, there must be adequate assurances that he would not be extradited or otherwise sent to the USA,” said Massimo Moratti, deputy research director at Amnesty International.
However, the two cases have to be kept separate to talk about either seriously. The mainstream media has been all too happy to conflate the two cases as if the United States would try Assange for rape and anyone who questions this is out of line. So let’s dissect the US case first.
If the case goes to trial, America’s Department of Justice will have to prove that Assange helped Chelsea Manning hack into databases that she didn’t already have authorisation to access. The rest of the indictment comes down to the facts that Manning gave Assange information and WikiLeaks undertook measures to conceal Manning’s identity.
Everyone should know that protecting sources is a key part of investigative journalism. This is where the case could have far-reaching implications for press freedom. Whether you like Assange or not is beside the point.
“Any prosecution by the United States of Mr Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organizations,” said Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.
Of course, WikiLeaks is not a media organisation in the conventional sense. But it does source and distribute material to the press. In other words, WikiLeaks makes the graft of journalism easier.
“Prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating US secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for US journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest,” Wizner said.
If the leadership of WikiLeaks can be prosecuted under America’s Espionage Act, many news organisations could be next on the hit list. And yet, more than a few journalists would be happy to see Assange dragged kicking and screaming into a US prison cell. They may live to regret this fantasy.
The WikiLeaks case could open up the possibility of Western journalists facing charges in countries like Russia and China. Would we really support the UK handing a Guardian reporter over to Moscow who had exposed war crimes in Chechnya? How about agreeing to a request by Beijing to extradite a journalist who had broken the Uighur concentration camp story? It’s worth thinking about. This is precedent setting.
Washington’s hacking allegations have nothing to do with the sexual assault claims made in Sweden. However, the British media is very happy to conflate the rape allegations with Washington’s case against WikiLeaks.
Holed-up in the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange could pretend that the threat of extradition to America was the same as the investigation into sexual assault claims in Sweden. If anything, Assange’s undignified arrest allows for more clarity on these accusations.
It’s reasonable to talk about the possibility of Assange facing a trial in Sweden and not in the United States. That’s if the Swedish authorities reopen the case and issue their own extradition demand. It might even prove to be a safer option for Assange.
After all, the UK has handed over far more people to the US for far less. Ideally, Sweden would give assurances it wouldn’t extradite Assange to the US and the trial could go ahead. In reality, it’s quite likely there would be a lengthy battle over extradition in either country.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott came under fire for pointing out that the charges were never brought. “If the Swedish government wants to come forward with those charges, I believe that Assange should face the criminal justice system,” she stressed.
“It is not the rape charges, serious as they are. It is about WikiLeaks and all of that embarrassing information about the activities of the American military and security services that was made public,” Abbott said.
When this saga began in 2012, the British left fell into controversy over the correct position to take on Assange. Progressives found themselves divided between those who thought Assange should be extradited to Sweden and those who thought there was a reasonable threat of a US extradition either before or after.
Most of Assange’s supporters feared that the Obama Administration would exploit the assault case to get its hands on the founder of WikiLeaks. Noam Chomsky argued that the Swedish authorities should question Assange inside the embassy. Financial Times legal correspondent David Allen Green dismissed this argument on the grounds that Assange is a suspect and therefore should be under arrest.
Nevertheless, the Swedish prosecutors did consider this option in 2015.
The British left, meanwhile, did itself no favours, with George Galloway and Craig Murray famously questioning the validity of the claims and whether they really counted as ‘rape’. To make matters even worse, Galloway infamously called Assange’s alleged transgressions “bad sexual etiquette”.
This became the main focus of the UK media debate about the WikiLeaks founder in 2012, not Assange’s whistleblowing.
Even when the UK authorities threatened to illegally raid the embassy to seize Assange, the BBC and the rest of Britain’s mainstream media were framing the debate on just two positions: you either take the side of the law on rape, or you must think the assault allegations are false.
It should be possible to hold more than one idea in your head at any one time. Whatever value WikiLeaks has as an organisation, the rape allegations should be fully addressed and Assange must be made to answer for his conduct. But this is all the more reason to oppose his extradition by the Department of Justice.
Satisfying American demands for extradition should never come at the expense of pursuing the course of justice in the European Union. The idea that Swedish legal claims are somehow secondary to those of the United States should be troubling to any country that values the rule of law. Assange could always be tried afterwards.
The fact that Stockholm is not decided on reopening its case against the WikiLeaks founder suggests that it too prefers to defer to the Americans. Britain’s lead is likely the ultimate decider, as it often is in helping drum up support for American initiatives in Europe.
By prioritising the US extradition request over the Swedish claims, the United Kingdom makes clear the fact that Washington always comes first. Though not surprising, the gesture is especially significant in light of the Brexit referendum and the British right’s efforts to take the UK out of the European Union.