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Assange as Poppins meets HR Pufnstuff

Noon, down in Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge, behind the regal bulk of Harrods, and the crowd was already building outside the Ecuadorian embassy. London. It was the hottest day of the year, all of London’s summer concentrated into one weekend, the sun beating down on the pavements, and the British, as they are wont to do, taking off all their clothes and wearing shorts that look like tartan dishrags.

The floating crowd of 10-15 Assange stalwarts — a mix of Anonymous ops, V for Vendetta mask-wearers, slightly over-exuberant young women, and not a few tea-cosy wearers — were today swamped by mainstream supporters, a few enemies, and a great many of the simply curious. Down one side street of the grand red-brick Victorian building, a line of TV vans stretched to the far horizon. Dozens of camera set-ups stretched along the front of the embassy. Ecuadorians and other South Americans were there, an entirely separate faction, cheering on their feisty nation’s stand against the UK, US and Sweden. And there were cops.

Lots and lots of cops. There were waves of them, in concentric rings around the embassy, on the steps, in the back streets. There were cops under each window, and vans stretching down the other side of the street from the TV vans.

Thus began the return of Julian Assange to public appearance, after a two-month enforced absence, hunkered down in the embassy — and by agreement with the Ecuadorians, refraining from overt political statements and appearances. It had been announced late last week, when it was suggested that Assange would appear “in front” of the embassy, a few hours after it had been announced that he had been granted diplomatic asylum. This led to renewed speculation as to his possible arrest, etc — the topic of feverish debate around town. Would he allow himself to be arrested, having made his point? Would a fast motorbike etc? Or, by contrast, would he address everyone by video link, having already escaped to Quito?

We waited to see, but first there were the warm-up acts — Assange’s international lawyer Baltasar Garzon, who spoke mostly in Spanish, venerable street-fighting man Tariq Ali, and then Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who gave a roaring denunciation of large sections of the UK diplomatic apparatus, while also pointing out that he had used the UK embassy to harbour Uzbek dissidents, so the UK’s huffing and puffing about “no diplomatic asylum” came and went a bit.

Then there was a bit of faffing around with a microphone on the small corner balcony, and through the crowd, distributing red, yellow and blue (colours of Ecuador) helium balloons, “to be released when Julian finishes speaking”. It’s stuff like this that makes you cringe a little in matters Assange, although it was quickly defeated by the balloons clumping together and people losing hold of them anyway. Then there was a highly engineered roar, and Assange appeared, in clipped white hair, blue shirt, a maroon tie and a sheaf of papers, all the world like he was about to process your home loan.

His speech was brief and circumspect — apparently there were still agreements with Ecuador that he wouldn’t call for the overthrow of all governments. He referred to the solidarity of South American nations, in resisting the UK government’s blundering threat of invading an embassy, expressed gratitude to his supporters, and most importantly called on President Obama to “end the witch-hunt against WikiLeaks” and persecution of all whistleblowers. He gave a shout-out to Pussy Riot, the recently convicted Russian punk band, defying those who thought that his alliance with the state-controlled Russia Today channel would preclude any sort of mention. There was no account of the Swedish accusations, his view of them or the rationale for taking asylum.

It was a dignified speech, and he avoided the inevitable Evita comparisons with the whole Italianate balcony thing, but it was a close run.

Assange’s getting of asylum has coincided with a further backlash against Assange — one curiously, which did not emerge when he spent two years fighting extradition through the courts. Centre-left figures have always lined themselves up against Assange and the WikiLeaks project, which they find to be a disruption to business as usual. But now there are those from the further left, who believe that Assange should simply go to Sweden and face the accusations.

One of the most prominent is Owen Jones, the young, rising author of Chavs, a vigorous denunciation of the culture-hate directed towards the white working class, who wrote an article in The Independent calling on Assange to renounce asylum and face the accusations. The article was full on inaccuracies — Jones had Assange accused of two rapes, not one, mangled a quote from one of his accusers, is ignorant of Sweden’s peculiar extradition laws, and makes no mention of the clear and visible threats of further extradition to the US.

The piece has become a rallying point of sorts, for those who are willing to question state power — Jones says, for example, that “democracy in the UK has been corrupted and destroyed” for a generation, by the hacking scandal — but are curiously unwilling to apply that scepticism here. Why? The answer is obvious. The mere cry of rape is sufficient for people to withhold their critical faculties.I don’t propose to go over the wonkiness and shonkiness of the accusations against Assange again, but one major point needs to be made. There are some people who want to defend Assange, and his right to go on the run, as it were, while denying that they are making any sort of assessment as to the character of the things he’s accused of. That does not withstand scrutiny. For a moment’s examination would show that, if a major dissident figure had been accused of violent, predatory, aggravated rape, then no one could or ought defend him against facing the accusations and charges.

In determining that Assange has a right to run, people are making an assessment that the things that he is accused of — even if true — do not in some sense constitute r-pe, as we understand the term, morally speaking. Both the major accusations — one of using body-weight (while in the missionary position — yes, ew, ew, but bear with me) to prevent the applying of a condom (which was then applied, upon request), and the other, of beginning unprotected sex while the partner was sleeping, but that was rapidly consented to — constitute a moral, s-xual and personal-political grey area, better handled in the context of personal relations, rather than through the law.

My intent is not to argue this point here — it is to point out that Assange’s defenders on the left already accept this, even if force of habit means they cannot admit it. It is because the things that Assange is accused of simply do not strike many as rape, that one can then start to think clearly about whether he has the legitimate right to flee the jurisdiction. “Rape is rape,” Jones says, trotting out the student-union line. But the point is that no one really believes that any more — not least the Swedish government, which has about eight degrees of sexual violent crimes on the books.

What has happened is that sex crime laws in the UK, Australia and Sweden, among others, have been so greatly expanded in the past decade, that they have effectively fused together every form of behaviour from rape of unspeakable violence to difficult and perhaps uncreditworthy negotiations within a consensual encounter. Most of these latter cases fail, because they come down to word against word, one reason no one thought of including them in law until the past decade or so. More importantly, they separate legal notions of sex crime from everyday ones — which is why a whole class of people now say that Assange has no moral obligation to face these accusations. This is the unspoken assumption at the heart of the Assange case, and cause.

Now of course, in inimitable fashion, the cause has become international. Assange’s genius, from WikiLeaks to here, has been to use small interruptions in power processes to create major conflicts, which expose power relations, and alter them. Given that he set all this out in a couple of short papers at the beginning of the WikiLeaks project — that by releasing secret information in large amounts, one causes states and suprastates to lose their advantage and unity as conspiracies — it is surprising that people are surprised at every new twist.

His response to the extradition request has seen the European Arrest Warrant — the linchpin of a post-democratic EU, more so than the euro — subject to its most fundamental challenge in the UK courts to date, the case itself has shattered the easy “cultural left” refusal to examine the politics of sex, and sexual coercion. Now, his asylum request has done the same thing. It was inevitable that the UK would make secret threats to a smaller, “Third World” nation, and that Ecuador, in the WikiLeaks spirit, would release the memo, thus exposing implicit power relations and assumptions.

Now, that process is in play. Ecuador has appealed to leftist South America — through the OAS, and the smaller UNASUR (a South American nations group, which thus excludes Canada and the US) — to condemn the UK’s implicitly colonialist mindset.

The OAS will be meeting on August 24, in DC of all places, to consider a motion to censure the UK’s blatant disregard of diplomatic principles, and UNASUR agreed one today, with the foreign ministers of the continent linking hands as the resolution was met with cheers. In a sense, Assange’s initiative and British blundering has put the facade of international political equality right up front.

Whether that helps Assange get out of 3 Hans Crescent, remains to be seen. We await the next move. To add to my previous suggestions, the balcony speech gave me another idea. Helicopters can fly to 152 metres (500 feet) in London, with a general authorisation. Diplomatic vehicles are exempt under the Vienna Convention, and nothing in it says they can’t fly. So — a helicopter, a winch, and then a flight outside the 12-mile coastal waters limit. By the time it had happened, Assange would be on a yacht in the Channel.

No, no, don’t thank me, this was only half-mine — outside the embassy, when the huge, multicoloured clump of helium balloons were brought in, someone said “ah, that’s his plan!”. Assange as Poppins meets HR Pufnstuff flying away — would have made my Sunday. But we roll on.

23
  • 1
    ian dale
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I am disappointed Rundle has not done the slightest investigation in this piece into Sweden’s handling of these allegations when that country has a woeful record for prosecuting offenders.

    Can Rundle or anyone else tell me which in which country do investigators routinely invite suspects of a crime to visit them or as in this case, travel to another country for an interview?.

    Do NSW detectives invite a suspect in Perth to fly to Sydney?…or do they do as investigators have since investigations began, hop on a plane and travel to the suspect and often for the very important reason of surprise or the other obvious reason that once alerted the suspect may flee.

    That alone-that very unusual aspect of this so-called investigation that has delayed whatever justice alleged victims may receive, for over 2 years.

    It flies in the face of all normal police investigations including Sweden’s yet is ignored. For some reason, they want Assange, against all normal police practice, on Swedish soil.

    Combine that with a prosecutor (after the Chief Prosecutor has found no case to answer and still says the same), a Swedish Prime Minister and a corporate (not criminal as is the norm) who acts uniquely (and against all normal practice everywhere) for both alleged victims- all who come from the same right-wing firm of lawyers advised by Karl Rove and a firm who advised and assisted previously in rendition for the USA.

    This duck walks and talks like a conspiracy and to isolate matters like the allegations from the whole is shameful but effective.

  • 2
    Andybob
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    And Witchiepoo would be ….. ?

  • 3
    Coaltopia
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Julian could chopper over to Sealand - the failed-bid headquarters of The Pirate Bay - and pump out freedom radio to the masses.

  • 4
    Mr Tank
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I think you are on the money with the “do the bolt suggestion”, I’d hate to be locked up in London like that. Escaping in the manner you suggest would be bloody funny and possibly the turning point in getting our Governments to lighten the frak up.
    If the idea is considered seriously I would assume that the diplomatic vehicle in question would have to be already registered as such with the British Government. The question then, is which of the South American Embassies own a helicopter?” Personally, I hope the Venezuelans have one.
    Shame tho it couldn’t be done with a hot air balloon.

  • 5
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Guy’s idea of appointing Assange as Ecuador’s Ambassador to the UN still has the edge as a practical solution.

    This morning’s ABC24 Breakfast attempt to interview Christine Assange was abysmal. She, like her son, is better informed than a considerable hunk of the media. Carvalho was completely out of her depth and didn’t have the sense not to talk over the interviewee. The News Editor should advise Carvalho not to drag out the delivery of her questions to fill twice as much airtime she is prepared to allow for answers. Today’s effort was an embarrassment and was akin to Amateur Hour.

  • 6
    puddleduck
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece, thanks Guy. Have been recommending your years worth of writing and research on Assange generally, and Swedish laws in particular, to anyone who wants to know what is really going on.

    Bravo.

    I’d like to see him get away, too. Was really hoping your suggestion of the Quito viodellink would happen on Sunday.

  • 7
    puddleduck
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    videolink! Damned browser takes the last three words of each line out of sight. Blah!
    At least I think that’s what I’ve typed. Should use preview, right?

  • 8
    cannedheat
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    There is another problem with escape for Assauge. Would the US simply shoot down or blow up any getaway vehicle once in international waters/air space… let’s look at the record: detention without trial, torture, ex-judicial killing… nah couldn’t happen…

  • 9
    Simon Veitch
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Julian Assange appears to be the most effective tweaker of the zeitgeist since George Orwell. He’s redefined Journalism, and whatever he does now, however it turns, it will be incredibly revealing. Thank you, Guy, don’t stop.

  • 10
    Candle
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Probably the best part of this article was the link to the The Independent article, which points out that:
    The USA’s best opportunity to extradite Assange is actually whilst he remains in the United Kingdom, a country very ready to grant extradition requests.

    Rundle’s writing on this, particularly the article in the Monthly which published the names of the victims in the sexual assault case, their photographs and went into gratuitous and irrelevant details about their appearance and what they were wearing, shows how willing supposedly left-wing media outlets are to discard any decency around reporting of sex crimes if the alleged offender is a Great Left-Wing Penis.

  • 11
    izatso?
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    as opposed to some who would let us know who didnt pull the chain, maybe ? you wish only certain facts, maybe ? you should read your howlers before posting, maybe ?

  • 12
    Peter Evans
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Next election in Sweden is September 2014. I wonder how all this is playing in Swedish politics. Would a change of government there end the impasses, either by dropping the matter, agreeing to an interview conducted in the UK, or guaranteeing no extradition or rendition to the US?

  • 13
    mattsui
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for setting the scene, GR. Assange is a comic book protagonist (of the post modern manga-esque variety) come to life. Where will his next flight take him……?
    We wait with baited breath (and trollbaited comment streams).

  • 14
    Houston Jason
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Probably the best part of this article was the link to the The Independent article, which points out that:
    The USA’s best opportunity to extradite Assange is actually whilst he remains in the United Kingdom, a country very ready to grant extradition requests.”

    Sweden hasn’t turned down an extradition request in decades and has a history of helping send people to the CIA for torture. I don’t know where this idea that Sweden is less likely to extradite him than the UK comes from.

  • 15
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    As if an article in a newspaper (The Independent) would ever be “the best part” of any story. Anything about Julian Assange, like Bin Laden, is mostly journalists talking to journalists (probably over a drink) about what other journalists said and might have meant. It’s just that Guy does all of that better than most and someone else is paying. Oh yeah, it’s probably us. Good!

  • 16
    Bill Williams
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I can’t quite put my finger on why I find your essay vaguely offensive, Guy. I know that when it comes to anything British your usually high standard of journalism becomes mired in an essentially British perspective of the world….for example in your essays on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Your essay however does slightly criticise the UK for its “implicitly colonialist mindset”.

    I wonder if this mindset extends to you, too, Guy? Is there a touch of professional jealousy creeping into your essay? You describe a “further backlash against Assange” as though it is justified. You describe Assange’s appearance on the balcony thus: “there was a highly engineered roar, and Assange appeared, in clipped white hair, blue shirt, a maroon tie and a sheaf of papers, all the world like he was about to process your home loan.” Just a little too far up the slope of the high judgemental ground for my liking, Guy.

    I guess what I really found offensive was your lack of willingness to consider that the British and Swedish legal processes might be based on anything other than fair and sound legal process. You seem to have a double standard here: it’s ok for the UK to pull the pin on its financial commitments to the EU but not on its legal commitments, right?

    Many of us watched Four Corners’ “Sex, Lies and Julian Assange” and we’ve made up our minds, even if we hadn’t already, that the charges against Assange are probably trumped up and not worth the risk of extradition to the US. Two women found out he was sleeping with both of them at the same time and they became retrospectively angry about it…..especially given his lack of good sexual hygiene. Certainly not very chivalrous, but also not an electric chair offence. I wonder if you would go to Sweden willingly to face charges if you were in his shoes?

    I also wonder if you have a bit of a colonial attitude as well…….is it because Julian Assange is just an Australian that you see fit to pen your “he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy” piece, Guy?

  • 17
    AR
    Posted Monday, 20 August 2012 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    My only surprise is that, in order to put offside the bien pissants, there wasn’t child porn planted on his computer but he’s probably too tek savvy for spooks to intrude.

  • 18
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2012 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Ian Dale -

    I’ve written extensively about the peculiar resistance of the Swedes to interviewing Assange elsewhere. But I cant repeat the whole case in each article

    Candle -

    As I noted in the article proper, Owen Jones hasn’t understood, or been interested in, the particular rules which allow Sweden to extradite while someone is charged with a crime (something that doesnt exist in the UK).

    As to the Monthly article, the names of the two accusers were well-known - at some point anonymity becomes absurd. Seconcly, i emphatically did not make any comment about the women’s appearance. I reported that one woman, Anna, had nicknamed, Sofia, the other ‘pink cashmere sweater girl’, a designation which suggested that a member of Stockholm’s elite was disparaging an outsider. Seems relevant, since gender might not be the only power at play here.

  • 19
    susan winstanley
    Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Actually Guy, a bit of repetition might not be so bad.

    I am amazed at the nasty, pugnacious, ill-informed interviews and commentary about Assange on the ABC, both radio and television.

    See for example, the interview on Sunday morning ABC24 with Christine Assange. She tried to tell the idiot ABC desk-jockey some facts about Ecuador and “freedom of speech” but he was just not interested. His mind had been made up for him already.

    And the smearing goes on, particularly on the sexual allegations. The ABC has already had to issue an apology for saying in news bulletins that Assange is wanted on “rape” charges. How disgusting.

    In my opinion, your articles on crikey, right from the start, have been the most factual and informative, across all media in Australia, where generally the press has utterly disgraced itself in reporting lies and misinformation.

    Virulent personal abuse of Julian Assange has now reached levels only comparable to that levelled at PM Gillard and it is the trash media egging it all on, with the brain-dead ABC news division following blindly in their wake.

    I went looking the other day for your factoid about it being common practice for Swedish prosecutors to travel all over Europe to interview “suspects” as a matter of course, and you even gave a couple of specific examples, but I could not locate it.

    I would appreciate a dedicated archive of all Guy Rundle’s reporting on the Assange case, so that myself and others can easily access the FACTS for further dissemination.

    Finally, I have no problem with your scepticism regarding the swedish women accusers, who by now must be seriously aghast at what has happened, when all they wanted was an STD check-up from Assange. Unfortunately they now have no way of walking back and clarifying their actions. They have presumably been silenced by some very freaky political operatives with enlarged agendas.

  • 20
    Guy Rundle
    Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Bill

    - why don’t you try reading my article before you criticise, you great pillock? In quoting Owen Jones’s article, which suggests that Assange should return to Sweden to face the accusations, I clearly point out his misconstruction of several key points. I then point out that Assange has challenged a whole series of power relationships, and refute the idea that he is ducking accusations of rape, suggesting that he has no case to answer.
    Re-read the article. How unbelievably stupid do you have to be to make a 30 line comment, without reading the damn thing properly?

  • 21
    jordan ketty
    Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

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  • 22
    ian dale
    Posted Tuesday, 21 August 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    OK I stand corrected Guy Rundle. Good of you to reply.

  • 23
    Hunt Ian
    Posted Friday, 24 August 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Swedish authorities haven’t laid charges against Assange. Guy says the Swedish police want to question him about actions that could never be offenses in Australia or the UK - I am not sure why someone, still less a left winger, would want to say “rape is rape” to something that involves something just a bit short of full consent to every detail of what happens in the course of sex. The only substance to the concern of the women is an STD infection, which could be the basis of some sort of charge if they actually got one. But in the absence of that it is more than a little strange that the women have made complaints and have persevered with them.
    Given this, the reaction of the British Foreign secretary to the asylum granted by Ecuador is extraordinary. First, he threatens to invoke UK legislation designed for terrorist incidents to bring off the extradition. When this seems unwise to his Dept, he then threatens to break off diplomatic relations with Ecuador to cancel the diplomatic immunity of its embassy. Who does the British Foreign minister think he is dealing with? A terrorist?
    While a Mary Poppins exit would be very, very funny, given the ludicrous extremes to which the British Foreign secretary is prepared to go, I find the extreme of the reactions not just ludicrous but, because they are so persistent and so little motivated by the substance of what happened in Sweden, I think they are alarming. When you put this together with the failure of the Swedish police to do what they have often done, according to Guy, it raises the question of whether Assange is, after all, in deep danger. Swedish police have in the past stood aside as the CIA rendered two of their citizens to Egypt to face torture. Since the British Foreign Secretary seems to equate Assange with terrorists, why should extraordinary rendition to the US be unthinkable to Swedish police? Rendition is one thing that Britain would be reluctant to do to an Australian citizen these days (it was OK to engage in extraordinary rendition of British citizens to Australia in 1788) but not something that Sweden would find as difficult. I only wish the ludicrous extremes of what is going on is the stuff of comedy rather than something to promote concern,
    Ian Hunt

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