7.30am, Belmarsh Magistrates Court in an area of south east London once a centre of docking, shipwrights, river work, and now a vast warehouse for human surplus to the requirements of a global economy, as far as I can tell, and there were already two dozen satellite vans pulled up outside. The paps were up on their step-ladders, the truthers were across the road with their V for Vendetta masks on, and the travelling children’s circus was back in town, as the Julian Assange extradition hearing began.
When we last left our hero, he was languishing in a Norfolk mansion with a Glasgow Rolex on his ankle, trapped in a Christmas photo-shoot wearing hunting brogues, with the Swedish government wanting him back for further questioning on four accusations of sexual misconduct and rape.
During that time Assange’s legal team had released a “skeleton” defence, which name-checked just about every possible objection to the process from the argument that the forms had been improperly authorised, to the argument that the accusations didn’t amount to crimes in the UK, to the prospect of Assange being handed over to the US by a craven Swedish right-wing establishment.
Previous hearings had been pretty spesh, and they were bail hearings. By 8am the Assange caravan had rolled up, with pin-striped Brechtian pug Mark Stephens, Captain Vaughan Smith, Frontline Club owner, dressed for a hunt, Icelandic ice God Kristinn Hrafnsson, and the two WikiLeaks kids, who currently constitute about 80% of the organisation — and silvertailed Geoffrey Robertson, whom is starting to look like Assange’s Dad. Another one? It’s starting to be a bad habit.
In the press scrum was the usual crowd — the East European hackettes who looked like they might be here for a separate morals hearing, gormless wire reporters, and the enormous grey-fluffy visage of the New York Times‘ John F Burns, on his way through, the author of a poisonous profile of Assange several months earlier, back for another go, though security made him leave his hatchet at the door.
Your correspondent denied a press pass, smuggled himself into the public gallery by some deft footwork, which largely consisted of answering the question “are you a member of the press” with the word “no”. Obvious you may think, but it defeated other excluded journos trying to get in.
“Are you a member of the press?” one lanky bloke from The Mail was asked.
“Er yes, oh damn, bloody hell, that was the wrong answer wasn’t it?”
Having avoided the cull, I was there five minutes later when the Assange supporters team descended like a flock of aunts at a village wedding, the Captain, the kids, Sarah Saunders, Tony Benn et al. I chatted briefly with Jemima Khan about eye disease, and scolded a white-silk clad Bianca Jagger for jumping to the head of the queue.
“You’re not in Studio Fifty Four now Bianca, it’s first come first served. Get back on your white horse,” I said, an hour later, in my head, contenting myself at the time with “erp there’s a queue”.
Anyway the match kicked off about ten with overview arguments trailed out by Clare Montgomery, a K.D. Lang lookalike QC, with a sharp edge, who effectively argued that since Assange was accused of rape and that was a mandatory extradition crime there was no need for much more to be discussed; the warrant was well-formed, and the idea that Sweden would slip him off to the States was nonsense with existing frameworks in place.
Robertson countered by pointing out one thing the prosecution had omitted — that Assange, if extradited, would be tried in secret, because that’s how Sweden do rape trials, and could be held incommunicado because that’s how Sweden deals with rape suspects. Robertson argued that Sweden has long been in violation of European human rights standards, and that such continued violation means the European arrest warrant should not be honoured pro-forma.
He also argued that three of the four accusations did not amount to a charge in the UK, and that the fourth — of minor rape — did not meet the automatic extradition standard because it was equivalent to the crime of sexual assault elsewhere, not reaching the rape standard.
To argue all this further, Robertson had called the distinguished former Swedish judge, Brita Sundberg-Weitman, a mottled old piece of Swedish oak, and I mean that as a compliment. Sundberg-Weitman argued that the whole process as undertaken by the senior prosecutor Marianne Ny (who had reinstated the investigation after it was discontinued) was perverse, over the top, that issuing an arrest warrant was massively disproportionate to the matter at hand.
She produced the first gasp of the day by arguing that Ny was a “radical feminist” who thought that men accused of sex crimes were always guilty, and produced a quote of Ny’s which appeared to say that it’s good to jail men for a goodly period of remand, even if they’re ultimately acquitted.
The prosecutor grilled her on this, and it was a fantastic duel between two tough birds — slowed a little by Sundberg-Weitman’s deafness, occasional recourse to an interpreter, and general shittiness with the way the Swedish justice system has gone. Sundberg-Weitman did seem to come back with one crucial point: that Ny had said that incarceration was good even when “perpetrators were acquitted”, which seemed to regard the actual process of trial and defence as a minor nuisance.
After lunch, where Assange and John F Burns sharked around the canteen studiously avoiding each other, team Assange unveiled its second witness — law reform activist Göran Rudling, whose research had uncovered that one of Assange’s accusers had deleted crucial tweets from her account, which seemed to indicate to desire to obscure the degree to which she was still enjoying Assange’s company, for several days after the alleged sexual coercion. Crikey readers will know this well, since we were among the first outlet in the world to publicise Rudling’s findings — but it was news to most of the press.
Also revealed was the seven step guide to revenge on cheating lovers that one of the accusers published (and then also removed from the net, or tried to). Read out by Rudling in court, with its line that “a lot of little stories may be better than one big lie”, and to “make them suffer as they made you suffer”, it had a kind of chilling effect, and Montgomery struggled to lay a glove on the softly-spoken Rudling.
What weight the court will attach to this or anything the defence produces remains to be seen. As also noted here, the Assange case is proving to be a crucial test of the European arrest warrant, which is designed to fast track intra-EU extradition, and has since 2004 been responsible for many miscarriages of justice, as anonymous, powerless people have been railroaded back to countries for minor crimes or trumped up charges languishing for months or years in remand. Assange has power, and visibility and if he can defeat this warrant then precedent will be set, and a crucial strut pulled away from under it.
Say what you like about Captain Neo, he can’t help making history. As his extradition hearing continues, the news in the UK is all about the sleazy deal to release al-Megrahi in order to smooth relations with Libya — using his cancer as a cover to keep him out of a prisoner repatriation deal, but send him home anyway. This was the Labour government doing this, not the Scots, who took the blame.
The story has come out because the government released the papers — but only because WikiLeaks cables had made it clear to the govt that the story would all come out soon.
Tomorrow, two more witnesses. Who knows what it will be.
When I left the WikiLeaks crowd was all arranging dinner, and Sarah, the one-time mousy-quiet assistant drawn from a journalism class six months ago, and now about eight inches taller in six inch pink heels and a no-bullshit manner was telling members of the international press to fuck off, nicely.
Bianca’s black eyes flashed angrily at me, pure Nicaraguan jaguar. Not for the first time in my life, I knew how Mick felt, I knew how Mick felt. Then I got the 244 bus and went home.