Julian Assange, free speech and rape

Submitted by Matthew on 22 August, 2012 - 9:11

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now holed up in Ecuador’s Embassy, west London, having been granted political asylum by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is now holed up in Ecuador’s Embassy, west London, having been granted political asylum by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. Correa says he granted asylum to prevent Assange being extradited to a “third country”, meaning the US.

There is now a stand-off between the British state — which wants to send him to Sweden, where he faces allegations of rape and sexual assault, following a completed process in the British courts — and Assange and his protector, Correa.

There are two questions here about Assange.

First, the issue of the charges he faces in Sweden.

Second there is his fear — probably he is correct to fear this — that the Swedes will attempt to extradite him to face charges that WikiLeaks published secret US documents, and that if the Americans succeed in getting their hands on him they will lock him up and throw away the key.

Solidarity considers Assange innocent of the rape charges until proven guilty. We do not know if he is guilty or not, and we know he denies the charges. But we certainly think he should go to Sweden and answer the allegations.

Secondly, whether he is guilty or not of publishing US secret documents, we are certainly against him spending time in jail for it. We do not regard the printing of such documents by WikiLeaks as a crime. (In power this is something a workers’ government would do, on a much grander scale, as a matter of course).

The problem now is that the way Assange and some of his supporters are presenting themselves minimises the importance of the sexual allegations against him, treating them as either minor details or as part of a conspiracy by the US to discredit Assange and/or make it easier for the US to extradite him. (Or, in the case of George Galloway, treating the alleged rapes as both minor matters and as part of a US conspiracy).

The Swedish state’s legal system is independent and does not simply deliver verdicts at the whim of Swedish politicians or, still less, Washington. Swedish law requires evidence showing “probable cause” for believing the crime was committed, before any extradition request can be made. In other words we have every reason to believe Assange has a serious case to answer.

In fact so do his lawyers. At Assange’s extradition hearing one had this to say: “Nothing I say should be taken as denigrating the complainants, the genuineness of their feelings of regret, to trivialise their experience or to challenge whether they felt Assange’s conduct was disrespectful, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing the boundaries of what they felt comfortable with.”

Moreover, while the threat to Assange of serious US jail-time is real, it is probably the case that he will be safer in Sweden than in the UK (Swedish legal safeguards against unjustified extradition to the US are stronger than Britain’s). So it is difficult to take seriously the link being made by his supporters between extradition to Sweden and possible future extradition to the US (in other words the legal proceedings in Sweden are not a pretext to make it easier for Assange to be whisked off to America.)

Last Sunday Assange made a statement from the embassy balcony, to waiting media and supporters. He failed to mention the case he faces in Sweden, concentrating instead on the US threat to WikiLeaks. That underlines the suspicion that Assange fails to take the charges seriously. And he should. And so should the left.

Of course George Galloway is not on the left. It is unfortunate that there are still a few that think he is (or pretend to for opportunistic reasons). Nevertheless there is something to shock everyone in Galloway’s remarks in defence of Assange: “[Even] if these allegations made by these two women are true… they don’t constitute rape… I mean not everyone needs to be asked prior to each insertion.” Galloway’s remarks brought this rebuke from Katie Russell for Rape Crisis, “It is staggering how ignorant, factually and morally incorrect George Galloway can be.”

And Rafael Correa is not the perfect ally either. He one of a series of South American leaders who combine radical rhetoric with local repression and is using the Assange case for self-promotion. Correa has a poor record on free speech at home. In 2011, he closed a string of radio and television stations in a bid to silence critics. According to Human Rights Watch, five journalists were jailed for “disrespecting” the government between 2008 and 2011.

Of course Julian Assange might argue he is little choice in the friends he chooses. In 1937 Trotsky took refuge in Mexico, run by a radical and repressive nationalist regime.

The difference, of course, between Trotsky and Assange is that Trotsky was trying to stop Stalin silencing him, (eventually killing him) — and Assange appears to be trying to avoid a rape case.

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