On June 19 Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London and asked for political asylum. He had exhausted his appeals against extradition to Sweden to answer allegations of rape and sexual assault brought against him there by two women. In applying to Ecuador for asylum and putting himself beyond the reach of the British authorities, he is in breach of his bail conditions. He has consistently denied that there is any truth in the women’s allegations. No charges have been brought against him. Assange has offered to answer any questions the Swedish prosecutors may want to put to him in London, or via skype. He says that he has applied for political asylum because he fears that if he goes to Sweden he will be extradited from there to the United Sates where he could face life imprisonment or even the death sentence.
This story is unusually contentious for several reasons. It is worth trying to disentangle the various elements that have become so entangled that many who should know better seem no longer able to see the wood for the trees. First, there is the vital issue of Wikileaks and the explosive revelations that blew open, for the whole world to see, the United States’ and other governments’ closely guarded dirty secrets. This is the crux of the matter. Second, there are the rape and sexual assault allegations against Assange; third, there are further allegations leveled against him by his critics to the effect that he displays various personality defects; fourth and finally there is the latest development involving Ecuador and the diplomatic immunity of its embassy.
In 2010 Wikileaks released more than 250.000 secret US state department documents and The Guardian, The New York Times and other international media began publishing some of them. This was a tremendous victory for everyone genuinely committed to freedom of information and a tremendous blow to power elites everywhere who thrive on secrecy, lies and hypocrisy. The predictable cant from the US State Department and its media echoes, about the dire consequences of revealing confidential diplomatic conversations, belied their real alarm over, for example, irrefutable filmed evidence of US soldiers gratuitously gunning down civilians in Iraq. The insensate fury unleashed at times like this by those who wield state power against those who dare to expose the crimes they have tried so assiduously to conceal, has a revealing historical precedent. Following the Russian revolution, in 1918 the Bolsheviks published the secret treaties concluded during the First World War between the Tsarist government and its western allies, Britain and France. These concerned the disposal between them of the fruits of victory over Germany, exposing once and for all the lies and hypocrisy of their claims to be fighting a war “for democracy”. The allies’ response was to launch a war of intervention against Russia in an attempt to “strangle Bolshevism in the cradle”.
If anyone is in any doubt about what Julian Assange’s fate is likely to be if he is extradited to the United States, one has only to look at what is happening to the US soldier Bradley Manning. Arrested in Iraq in 2010, accused of providing documents to Wikileaks, he was held until 2011 at Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia in conditions described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. In April last year 295 legal scholars signed a letter arguing that his treatment was a violation of the US constitution. He has been charged with “communicating national defense information to an unauthorized source” and “aiding the enemy”, which is a capital offense. According to his lawyers the government has deliberately overstated the harm that the release of the documents has caused, and overcharged Manning in order to get him to give evidence against Assange. Manning, if convicted, will most likely go to prison for life.
Assange’s critics (among them many who might have been expected to defend him) who are either ignorant of or unconcerned about what awaits him if he is extradited to the United States, should consider this. In 2010 Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein demanded that he be prosecuted under the draconian Espionage Act, shamefully introduced by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to prosecute anyone deemed to be opposed to US entry into the First World War. According to a leaked email, a sealed indictment has already been obtained against him. Prominent politicians, Republican and Democrat, have called for him to be imprisoned for life. There is no room for complacency about this. The threat to Assange is very real.
Then there are the illusions about Swedish neutrality and its supposed glowing record in defense of human rights. Here again a little history is instructive. In 1973 a left-wing journal, Folket: Bild/Kulturfront, published a series of articles by Jan Guillou and Peter Bratt exposing a highly secret Swedish intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, which was gathering information on Swedish leftists and others considered “security risks”. The IB operated outside the framework of state defense and intelligence organizations and there was no trace of it in budget allocations. The article claimed that IB staff engaged in break-ins, wire-tapping against foreign embassies, spying abroad and even murder. Names, details and photos of IB spooks were published under the heading “Spies”. Guillon, Bratt and other were arrested, tried in camera, convicted of espionage and jailed. Stieg Larsson’s best-selling novels are not so far from the truth.
More recently Ray McGovan, who was a CIA analyst for 30 years, says of Assange: “He was about to be sent to faux-neutral Sweden…which has a recent history of bowing to US demands in dealing with those that Washington says are some kind of threat to US security.” According to civil rights lawyer Glenn Greenwald, “Sweden has a disturbing history of lawlessly handing over suspects to the US” and Assange’s “fear of ending up in the clutches of the CIA is plainly rational and well-grounded.” In 2006 the UN found Sweden in violation of the global ban on torture for helping the CIA render two suspected terrorists to Egypt where they were brutally tortured.
What of the rape and sexual assault allegations against Assange? It seems that many have already made up their minds about this. Despite the fact that he has not been charged, it seems to be widely accepted that he is guilty. Tempting though it may be to start arguing the pros and cons of the matter based on hearsay and speculation, it is preferable to say simply and firmly that unless and until he is found guilty of any offences, he is innocent. On the basis of what little evidence there is, it impossible to know whether the women’s accounts of what happened are true. Equally, it is impossible to be sure whether or not he was lured into a honey trap. However, it is significant that in an article on 23 August, Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff of Women against Rape, wrote: “The allegations against him are a smokescreen behind which a number of governments are trying to clamp down on Wikileaks for having audaciously revealed to the public their secret planning of wars and occupations with their attendant rape, murder and destruction.” While making no judgment in this case, it is important, particularly for men, to be clear about the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in sexual relations with women.
Any attempt to pressurize a woman into having sexual intercourse against her will amounts to attempted rape and if persisted in to perpetration constitutes rape. Any perpetration of a sexual act against a woman who is drugged or asleep and therefore unable to give her consent, is rape. Obviously, in the case of a couple sleeping together in a loving and trusting relationship, where one may wake the other by touch or word to signify the desire for sex, this is self-evidently not a case of sexual assault or rape. All this should be obvious but as some men have recently expressed quite shocking opinions on this subject, it is important that other men make clear what is and what is not acceptable behavior in sexual relations between men and women.
Much has been written about Assange’s personality, most of it portraying him in a very negative light. Given the great work he has done through Wikileaks in exposing the lies, hypocrisy and brutality of those who wield power in some of the most powerful states in the world, and given the extreme danger he faces should he be extradited to the United States, his personal characteristics are entirely irrelevant. Whether they intend to or not, those who traduce him over such things are assisting his enemies who want to deliver him to pernicious US prosecutors seeking to imprison him for life. Character assassination is one of the weapons of destruction they are using against him.
The Ecuadorian government, to its great credit, has granted Julian Assange political asylum. The British government, to its shame, has not only declared that Assange will be immediately arrested if he tries to leave the Ecuadorian embassy, but further, on the basis of an obscure law passed in 1987, claims the right to enter the embassy to seize him. When President Correa, outraged by this claim, accused the British foreign office of threatening to storm the embassy, Foreign Secretary Hague, supported by much of the media, protested that the government had no such intention. Obviously concerned about the impact the threat would have in Latin America, the government tried to suggest that Correa had misrepresented the letter. But the message sent to Ecuador leaves no room for misinterpretation. If the British government claims the right to withdraw the diplomatic status of an embassy and enter its premises to seize someone who has been granted asylum there, it must be expected that any attempt to enter its premises will be resisted. To break that resistance, force would be required and that means the embassy would have to be stormed. The Ecuadorians understood the intention perfectly well. So did the rest of Latin America. At a meeting of the 35 member Organization of American States in Washington on 24 August all the Latin American countries expressed their “solidarity and support” for Ecuador’s stand. Only The US and Canada dissented.
Hague’s claim that Britain has no option but to extradite Assange to Sweden is also specious. Former Chilean dictator Pinochet was arrested in Britain in 1998 after Spain requested his extradition to face charges of multiple human rights violations. Pinochet was a friend of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher whose war against Argentina over the invasion of the Malvinas/Falkland islands in 1982 he supported. Pinochet was not repatriated to Spain but allowed by then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to return to Chile on humanitarian grounds. President Correa was right to remind Hague of the inconsistency in the treatment of the two cases.
If justice is to be done in this case, the siege against Julian Assange must be lifted and he must be allowed to go unmolested to Ecuador. To achieve this outcome he deserves the full support of all who regard justice and the rule of law in international affairs as more than empty phrases.