The arrest of Julian Assange – a reality check

December 8, 2010

So this is likely to be my most unpopular post to date.

I’ve been watching, with increasing incredulity, the storm that’s hit all forms of the media over Julian Assange, so-called ‘founder’ of Wikileaks*.

It’s probably not necessary, but for completeness’ sake: Wikileaks is an organisation with five paid employees and over 800 unpaid volunteers that describes itself as a ‘whistleblower’. They solicit leaked information, particularly from governments, then assess and publish it. Since 2006 they’ve published everything from Scientology documents to diplomatic cables. Assange has become the ‘face’ of Wikileaks over the years; he’s the one making announcements and answering media questions.

As I write this, Assange is being held by the British judicial system on an Interpol warrant relating to sexual assault charges in Sweden. Inevitably, there are now literally thousands of comments, blogs, tweets and articles flying around screaming, ‘Conspiracy!

Now, my personal jury is out on what Wikileaks do. On the one hand, I see real public good being served in the exposure of things like that horrendous ‘Collateral Damage’ video, which clearly shows a bunch of idiot US soldiers in a chopper egging each other on to gun down an unarmed Reuters journalist and then the good Samaritan who stopped to help him. And I think there is a real need for committed, ethical whistleblowers like Andrew Wilkie. On the other, what good was served by publishing those diplomatic cables – you know, the ones that said German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ‘teflon’, and that Kevin Rudd had told Clinton that if China wouldn’t play ball, the US might have to get tough?

And then on the third hand (yes, yes, I know), what about the fact that every one of these leaks proceeds from an act of theft, of espionage (corporate or governmental)? For that matter, what kind of discretion is used in deciding what to publish?

But leave that aside. That’s a discussion for a whole ‘nother blog post.

What’s astonishing is the extent to which all forms of media – mainstream, new, social – have automatically assumed that (a) the sexual assault charges are bogus; (b) if Assange gets extradited to Sweden he’ll be handed over to the US; and (c) this is ‘really’ about shutting down Wikileaks.

This is a representative sample of some of what’s out there – and I’m not making any of this up.

It’s a beat-up, a set-up, a honey trap! The US paid those two girls to accuse him! If he gets extradited to Sweden on sexual assault charges the US will grab him and whisk him off to Guantanamo Bay where he will be waterboarded until he reveals the identities of everyone who’s ever been involved with Wikileaks. He will have an ‘accident’ in custody. He will be ‘disappeared’.

Meanwhile people are changing their avatars to pictures of him, wondering if they can make t-shirts, tweeting ‘Free Julian Assange’, calling him a hero, a noble crusader, saying he should get an award or even be ‘President of Oz’ … and in an act of ultimate absurdity, last night The Australian published an op-ed piece he wrote. (I’ll say this for The Oz. They never let consistency get in the way of circulation.)

The hysteria is unbelievable. So I’m going to be a bit boring and talk about what’s actually happened, rather than join a wave that’s rapidly heading towards ‘UFOS CONTROL THE GOVERNMENT AND WANT TO KILL ASSANGE’ territory.

So I propose a reality check.

First – and should it even have to be stated? – Assange is not charged with any offences relating to Wikileaks. The charges are two counts of sexual molestation, one of unlawful coercion and one of rape. There are two alleged victims.

Now, Sweden has some pretty intense sexual assault laws, one of which relates to a situation in which otherwise consensual sex becomes coercive when one partner refuses to wear a condom or intimidates a partner into continuing with the act after a condom has broken and the other has said the act should cease. Much has been made of this law; it’s being held up to ridicule as ‘not really sexual assault’, ‘gosh, if I went to Sweden I’d have been charged with rape’, ‘what a beat-up’, etc. The consensus is that such a law is absurd. Well-known Twitter commentator Catherine Deveny even went so far as to urge people not to be ‘distracted’ by this, and to focus on ‘real’ sexual abuse instead.

But wait a minute – whatever people think of this specific law, look at the hypothetical situation being described. One partner has withdrawn consent for whatever reason. Most rape laws in the Western world would agree that at this point, the sex is no longer consensual.

Sounds like sexual assault in my book. With the added risk of a sexually-transmitted infection like chlamydia or HIV.

And we’re not just talking about this law, either. There are four charges, and the full details are not known. There’s a lot of speculation and embroidery going on, based on an article published in the Daily Mail and some comments published by one of the alleged victims in the past. British media now report that the charges include forcing one woman’s legs apart to have sex with her, and taking advantage of the other’s sleeping state to have sex without her consent. It’s the ‘condom law’ that gets the attention, though, and so it’s easy for people to dismiss the whole idea as ridiculous.

Once that’s accomplished, it’s a short step to say that what this is ‘really’ about is the persecution of a whistleblower. The women in the case are correspondingly demonised; either they are disgruntled ex-girlfriends manipulated by the US government (notice how it’s always the US, despite the number of countries Wikileaks has embarrassed), or they are actively involved in the Conspiracy to Destroy the Noble Hero. The net effect is that the message is shaped in such a way as to completely eclipse their case.

Assange himself is complicit in this. When these allegations first surfaced – months ago – he immediately set out to turn the story from possible criminal activity on his part to governmental vendetta aimed at shutting down Wikileaks. When governments do this, it’s called spin. When Assange does, it’s called ‘exposing the truth’.

With the message under control, every subsequent action becomes subject to the same colouration.

Assange surrendered himself to British police, in the company of his legal advisors. This was a voluntary decision on his part; the police were hardly ‘closing in on an international fugitive’. They thought he was ‘probably’ in the country – and it was an open secret among British media that Assange had been spending his time at a journalists’ club in London – but the Sweeney weren’t poised to leap into their cars and chase him down to his lair.

The police, of course, immediately arrested him and held him pending a ‘first hearing’. Of course they did. They had no choice. They had an international warrant to execute, and when you’re talking about a fugitive who has a history of country-hopping and the means to accomplish this, it’s not a matter of booking him and dropping him off at a hotel with a stern admonishment to front up to court. The police had no power to seize his passport; there was literally nothing stopping Assange from absconding.

Turning oneself in is usually regarded as a wise decision. Courts tend to look unfavourably on defendants who’ve tried everything to stay out of the clutches of the law. It’s no different in Assange’s case. Given the nature of the allegations, anything he does to show he is co-operating with the judicial system can only benefit him.

The message is still controlled, though. Assange may have delivered himself up to British police, but his legal team warned that they would fight extradition to Sweden. The reason? They believe that Sweden would simply hand him over to US authorities. In other words, it’s all a trap.

There is no evidence that this fear is well-founded. The US have not made any representations to Interpol about him. US legal authorities have already made it clear that as far as they can tell, he has not broken their laws.

Oh, but Sarah Palin and her ilk have called for Assange’s assassination. They want to torture or kill him. What the US must ‘really’ be planning, then, is extraordinary rendition – and Assange will disappear into Guantanamo Bay or a secret CIA facility where he will be waterboarded until he tells all.

This is beyond absurd.

At the first hearing, Assange was denied bail because he refused to provide a valid residential address in Britain. When asked, he countered with, ‘Why do you want it? For correspondence?’ and gave a post office box number. The court explained it had to be a place of residence, and Assange gave an address in Melbourne connected with Melbourne University (his alma mater).

No fixed address, no residence (despite the fact that he has clearly been living somewhere in Britain) – of course they denied bail. But to those devoted to the message, it was simply more proof that it was all a set-up designed to shut down Wikileaks.

His lawyers are doing their job, working hard to cast doubt on the charges. If they were ‘real’, they argue, why don’t the Swedish prosecutors come over to Britain and talk to Assange? The short answer? They’re not required to do so.

As for the idea that this is all about ‘killing’ Wikileaks – well, if that was the plan, it’s failed miserably. The organisation already put out a statement saying that their work would continue – and proved it by releasing more diplomatic cables. I find it difficult to believe that any government plotting the downfall of Wikileaks would be so stupid as to think that arresting one man would do that job.

Maybe Assange is innocent of these sexual assault charges. He’s absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence, and Swedish courts aren’t exactly known for their corrupt show trials. The Australian government has already provided him with consular assistance – despite the howls of the conspiracy theorists who condemn Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her harsh criticism. He has a brilliant legal team, headed up by Geoffrey Robertson, QC, one of the best human rights lawyers in the world.

And maybe there is an element of vindictiveness at work here. Maybe a couple of ex-girlfriends have decided to punish him, or a government is looking to discredit him. If that’s the case, then the best possible course of action is to front the court with those lawyers and challenge them to prove the allegations.

But let’s not get carried away with conspiracy theories. Let’s not conflate international condemnation from governments directed at Wikileaks with real, specific charges against an individual that have nothing to do with that organisation. Let’s not assume that this is some kind of James Bond or Bourne Identity plot being played out in real life.

In other words, let’s take a breath for a minute. Examine the whole story, separate the man from the message, evaluate what Wikileaks does on its own terms and let Swedish justice take its course.

Above all, let’s not participate in demonising two women who are just as entitled to the presumption of innocence as Assange.

* The base organisation that became Wikileaks existed before Assange came along. When the Wikileaks website was launched in 2006, the founders described themselves as a group of ‘Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa’.


%d bloggers like this: