Julian Assange puts most journalists to shame. Nobody has made public more embarrassing material about America’s rampant abuse of human rights in Afghanistan and Iraq than he and his team at WikiLeaks. Thanks to their determination and diligence, we now have the means to contrast the silver-tongued rhetoric of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with the unvarnished truth contained in cables and other documents that the powerful would prefer to hide.
None of this turns Assange into a saint. So if there is credible evidence of sex crimes against him, then he should be charged and put on trial. Despite the acres of newsprint devoted to him in tabloid and broadsheet papers over the past few years, no charges have been brought against him. Under principles of natural justice, he is entitled to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
Like everybody else, I don’t know what exactly Assange got up to in Sweden two years ago (prurient tittle-tattle in the media should always be treated with caution). But I have been following the development of the European arrest warrant (EAW) system for more than a decade. And there are serious questions about how it has been used in this and numerous other cases.
Though the idea of a European arrest warrant predates the 11 September 2001 atrocities, it was placed high on the political agenda in response to them. Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, has stated in the recent past that it was intended to be limited to “serious cross-border crimes”, rather than for “petty crimes”.
Rape is a horrible offence. In my view, a zero tolerance approach should be taken towards its perpetrators. Once their guilt is established beyond reasonable doubt, they should be locked away for long periods; treatment is necessary to minimise the risk they will re-offend when eventually released.
But to take robust action against rape, we first need a definition of what constitutes it. Before it is agreed that rape is covered by the European arrest warrant, all participants in that system should make clear that they have a common understanding of rape. In theory this should be relatively easy: most people would probably agree that rape involves one person performing a sexual act on another without the second person’s consent.
The trouble in the Assange case is that Sweden has different laws on rape than those on the statute books in other EU countries. Assange – I repeat – has not been charged. Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer making allegations against Assange, has not spelled out those allegations. But Borgstrom has indicated that Assange would expect a four year prison sentence if found guilty. This suggests that he accuses Assange of “unlawful coercion” or “minor rape” as it is also known. “Minor rape” is a uniquely Swedish offence covering cases where there is doubt about whether a sexual act was consensual or not.
Let me be clear: Sweden should be commended for having the toughest sexual offences laws in the world. Nonetheless, it is hugely problematic to extradite someone over allegations that he did something that is not recognised as a crime in the country from which is extradition is sought.
George Monbiot, a journalist and campaigner I greatly admire, has been using his Twitter account lately to argue that it’s wrong for political activists to seek that Assange be transferred to Sweden for questioning. I would agree with Monbiot if this was simply a matter of questioning.
But the fact of the matter is that the arrest warrant system has been established without adequate safeguards. There are no limits, for example, on how long a suspect may be detained prior to trial or guarantees that he or she will not be tortured or ill-treated. (The prospect of detainees being abused is not academic: between 2007 and 2010, EU countries were found guilty of violating the ban on torture and cruel treatment in 181 rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg).
Monbiot’s tweets hint that he accepts the bigger picture. This isn’t simply about what Assange did or did not do on his Swedish sojourn. It’s about the possibility that the US would wreak vengeance on Assange for exposing its crimes against humanity. Monbiot is unconvinced that Sweden would be more willing to hand over Assange to the US than Britain.
Lawyers for Assange, however, point out that Sweden has not rejected an extradition request from America since 2000. Britain, on the other hand, has turned down seven requests made by the US under the 2003 extradition treaty between the two countries. The gap between zero and seven is not vast but it does indicate that Assange has a greater chance of staying out of US custody if he can remain in England.
The torment of Bradley Manning illustrates why Assange deserves the support of decent people everywhere. If the Nobel Peace Prize was worthy of its name, it would be given to Manning, not Barack Obama. Yet in this twisted world, Manning languishes in solitary confinement for helping to make the world aware of his nation’s addiction to war; Obama spends part of his Tuesdays compiling a “kill list” so that drone operators can leave another Pakistani family without a parent or a child.
Manning and Assange have provided us with a treasure trove of information about US foreign policy and its deadly consequences. No wonder, then, that America wants to punish them.
●First published by New Europe, 8-14 July 2012.