It’s hard to like Julian Assange, but it would be grossly unfair to make a serious judgement on the basis of what’s been said and shown of him in public. We’re bound to be prejudiced, at least all those of us who don’t actually know him or his acquaintances and friends. Benedict Cumberbatch’s apparently splendid performance as Assange in The Fifth Estate established him as both saint and sinner, freedom fighter and arrogant, infuriating, self-regarding, paranoid, sociopath. And Alan Rusbridger’s account (in his wonderful Play It Again) of the Guardian’s dealings with Assange during the WikiLeaks publications, lends credence to this view. He seems to be difficult to love, difficult to work with, easy to admire.
But it’s hard not to be prejudiced, even if it’s wrong. Skipping bail by scuttling into the Ecuadorian Embassy, and thereby letting down those friends who raised thousands of pounds for his comfort and freedom, struck me as lamentably dishonourable.
But this has little to do with his current predicament and the legal storm he’s caught in. On balance, I admire what he did, as I admire Edward Snowden for his revelations. Governments must be embarrassed, and the creeping powers of the state must be curtailed. If lives were put in danger by either of them, that was inexcusable. But even if they protest, as many idealists do (as well as some of their opponents), that the ends justify the means, it’s a separate, serious issue that has nothing to do with the current issue of ‘arbitrary detention’.
In fact it’s hard to know what to think about the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruling on Assange’s predicament. I am no lawyer, but it seems obvious to me that the finding that Assange has been ‘arbitrarily’ detailed, is, indeed, ridiculous, as a UK Minister commented. He was lawfully detained in connection with a Swedish investigation into sexual misconduct (rape) and his extradition was approved, eventually, and after appeal, by the UK’s Supreme Court. His bid to escape extradition by voluntarily seeking asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy can hardly be called ‘detention’ in the common sense of the term. True, Swedish prosecutors haven’t been especially accommodating, and haven’t travelled to London to interview Assange, but I suppose they would claim they shouldn’t need to.
I haven’t read the full text of the UN Working Group’s finding (I searched for it on their website, but to no avail) but I presume it depends on the perception that there are darker forces at work, an underlying conspiracy to remove Assange to the USA to face serious charges in connection with his publication of state secrets. But that wouldn’t be enough to justify their finding. They might also have to believe that Swedish legal procedures in respect of allegations of rape are deficient or that the evidence justifying Swedish enquiries in this particular case is inadequate. If not that, they would have to believe that US extradition law in this particular case should be set aside, either because US law protecting official secrets conflicts with human rights, or, finally, they might have to believe that Assange could not expect a fair trial in the USA.
You will search in vain for a serious technical analysis of their finding. Consider this article, for example, which ridicules the Swedish and UK Governments’ responses, and most journalists’, and hints at darker purposes, but, as far as I can tell, it offers no real argument in support of the Working Group’s finding – CounterPunch.
If Assange were to leave the Embassy, he would probably be extradited immediately to Sweden. The USA might then ask for his extradition. He might then be convicted in a US court. I would regret all that. But martyrs are sometimes martyred. Indeed, some are incomplete without the full trappings of martyrdom. Martyrdom is the risk that courageous whistle-blowers and journalists must face.
Who knows, even if it might be hard not to find him ‘technically’ guilty in the USA, there might yet be a brave jury who would find him not guilty, despite the law. This happened, gloriously, when Clive Ponting was acquitted by a jury in the UK in the mid 1980s even though a judge almost explicitly directed the jury to find him guilty of leaking secret details about the British sinking of Argentina’s warship, the General Belgrano, during the Falklands War.
The law is not mechanical, but on balance, and even though I admire his actions, I believe that Julian Assange should submit himself to its workings. I myself presume in favour of fair proceedings in the UK, Sweden and the USA.