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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Assange - keeping the issues separate


Yesterday, as most people interested in the subject know, Assange lost his appeal against extradition to Sweden to face accusations of sexual misconduct. He lost on all four counts of his appeal, and lost so convincingly that many commentators have suggested that his chances of success in one, final appeal to the Supreme Court are very slim indeed. He has not yet, at the time of writing, decided whether or not to make such an appeal.

It’s not the facts of what happened yesterday that matters to me, but the implications – and in particular, the reactions from so many people interested in Assange, in Wikileaks, in freedom of information, in combating secrecy, in the potential liberating power of the internet and so forth. For far too many of them, in my opinion, all these issues have been far to closely linked. We need to separate out the different issues. Julian Assange is not Wikileaks, and Wikileaks is not Julian Assange. Freedom of information and the fight against government and corporate secrecy and power is not dependent on Wikileaks, let alone on Julian Assange himself. We need to be able to separate the issues, and to think clearly about them. We need to be able to fight the right battles, not the wrong ones.

There are many people who, like me, are very much in support of the aims of Wikileaks, and who see the liberating potential of the internet as one of the most important things to emerge in recent times (without understating the reverse – the potential for the internet to be used for oppression and control, as so ably set out by Evgeny Morozov and others), but who, at the same time, support the concept of the rule of law, where that law is both appropriate and proportionate. I want open government, liberal government, accountable government – not no government at all. I don’t want personality cults, I don’t want anyone to be above the law, whether they are ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. For me, that means I want Assange to face his accusers, and I want to be able to find out whether he is guilty or not.

Assange has already lost a lot of supporters in Sweden – as this Swedish commentator points out – by attacking both their legal system in relation to sexual offences and their apparent willingness to extradite easily to the US. For me, both of these accusations need to be looked at very carefully. Most people who have studied the way that sexual offences – and in particular accusations of rape – have been treated historically in the courts should recognise that women have generally got a very raw deal indeed. The way that the Swedish system has attempted to at least to start to rectify this balance is one that should be applauded and supported, not attacked or even vilified, in the way that some supporters of Assange seem to have done – ‘the Saudi Arabia of Feminism’ is one of the descriptions put forward. Such attacks are not justified or in any way appropriate – at least not to me.

And are Sweden really more likely to extradite Assange to the US than we are in the UK? It seems unlikely, as Andy Greenberg’s report in Forbes suggests. The UK doesn’t have a good record in resisting such requests – and given all the publicity it seems highly unlikely that the Swedish would let such a thing happen on their watch. Moreover, the Swedish system would require dual criminality for an extradition to occur – that is, the offence committed has to be a crime both in the country seeking extradition and in Sweden itself. Assange’s ‘offenses’ would not easily be shoehorned into that description. Either way, it’s hard to see an extradition occurring from Sweden – extradition from the UK seems far more likely.

There's one further point about the Swedish system - one that seems to have been missed by many of his supporters. It’s not really true that ‘no charges’ have been brought. As the judge pointed out in yesterday’s ruling, the Swedish system is different to that in the UK, and ‘charges’ are only brought at a very late stage, with a trial to follow almost immediately. The Swedish investigation has gone past the point where, in the UK, US or Australian investigation, charges would have been brought. Implications that the opposite true are really not helpful.

When I’ve suggested either that Assange was likely to get a fair trial in Sweden or that extradition to the US was unlikely, many people have shot me down, suggesting that there would be a stitch up between the Swedish and US authorities, that the charges were trumped up to start with – ultimately that there is a great conspiracy to bring Assange down. I don’t find the latter that difficult to believe – there are certainly some very bad things happening in relation to Wikileaks, and the approach used to try to squeeze the life out of them through the financial blockade is one of the most reprehensible and dangerous developments of recent years. However, if that conspiracy extends to ‘trumped up’ charges of rape and sexual assault on Assange, then for me that actually provides an opportunity, not a threat.

That’s where the rub comes. If Assange is guilty, then he should face the charges and receive appropriate punishment. If he’s innocent – and in particular if he’s the victim of a conspiracy-based set-up – then by facing the charges, by going through a legal process, he can prove that, and even expose the conspiracy. I’m not saying that I believe either way – neither I, nor the vast majority of either his supporters or his enemies know enough to know that. If he’s guilty, he wouldn’t be the first man to have abused his position of celebrity and power to behave inappropriately. If he’s innocent, he wouldn’t be the first innocent man accused in this way – or the first set up by his enemies.

For me, though, if you support the kinds of things that Wikileaks supports – exposing the truth, holding the powerful to account, moving towards a better, more open, more liberal future – you should want all this to be out in the open too. That means letting Assange go to Sweden, and it means refraining from the very smear tactics that his opponents use in relation to the Swedish judicial system. There are many, many things to be concerned about in relation to the treatment of Wikileaks, and indeed of Assange – but yesterday’s ruling, almost certainly correct from a legal perspective as bloggers like the excellent Adam Wagner have made clear, is not one of them.

Whether Assange is guilty or not, and whether he’s found guilty or not, supporters of freedom of information – and supporters of Wikileaks – should try not to tie his personal issues with the broader, more important issues that Wikileaks has raised. They’re not intrinsically and inextricably linked – and if we let them be, we’re playing into the hands of the very groups that we should be opposing.

3 comments:

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  2. Figureheads can be dangerous things; I react to a lot of things more instinctively than I should, but with Assange identified as the face of Wikileaks, I automatically give the cause less credence. This is unfair, but makes the choice of figurehead an important thing for organisations and movements to consider. I could say similar things about certain pressure groups...

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  3. Yes, I think you're right, and in some ways Assange's personal affairs may well have damaged the credibility of Wikileaks as a whole, which is a real shame.

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