Six months ago. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, on bail awaiting a decision about extradition to Sweden, quietly moved his official bail residence from Suffolk to Kent. The ostensible reason was that his Suffolk host -- Vaughan Smith, founder of Frontline Media and the Frontline Club and his wife -- were expecting a baby imminently, and Mrs Smith was finding the perpetual presence of a dozen or so WikiLeakers stressful.
Myself, I thought one thing: channel run. Two hours after a judgment came down from the UK Supreme Court authorising Assange's extradition to Sweden, he would be on a yacht, one of those super-yachts that the cypherpunks of the '90s bought after they all got rich. It was easy to game it out. The super-yacht only has to get beyond the 12-mile UK waters line before it is in international waters. Assange would then be in a legal limbo.
I never wrote the suggestion up in an article, because I thought it was something Team Assange might be planning, and something the dim-bulb UK legal-police establishment would genuinely not have thought of. Instead, Assange has done something more creative -- turned up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and asked for asylum. The move has thrown the carefully choreographed rendition of Julian Assange into chaos, and created an international impasse in London, and in the EU as a whole.
To recap the state of play: 10 days ago, the UK Supreme Court denied Assange's appeal against a European arrest warrant to Sweden, to submit to further questioning on s-xual assault allegations made by two women he had met in August 2010. Assange's barrister, thinking on her feet, noted the judgment relied in part on the Vienna Convention, which had not formed part of the case leading up to the Supreme Court review. The SC gave her leave to request an appeal on their own judgment.
Last week they dismissed that request rather curtly and set the clock ticking for Assange's extradition. The only option remained an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, to overrule the UK Supreme Court. But the ECHR will only rarely grant injunctive relief and stop national legal proceedings -- most likely it would take two years to consider the case by which time Assange would be in an orange jumpsuit in a Maryland supermax prison.
Had Assange consented to the extradition he would have entered the Swedish legal system, which has two main features:
- There is no such thing as bail; you're either accused of a non-coercive crime and let out on licence, or you're on remand until trial.
- Sweden has a distinctive system of extradition -- especially to the US -- in which someone accused of a crime in Sweden (and hence on remand) can be "loaned" to the US for prosecution there. This process does not exist in many other countries.
Assange's latest move has attracted a share of criticism, with both supporters and those neutral towards him questioning his conduct in this matter. About eight people have put up £240,000 bail for Assange, and while many of those -- such as leftist filmmaker Ken Loach -- would accept that Assange has to take drastic message, others will be less understanding. Jemima Khan has already tweeted that the move took her by surprise, and that she always thought Assange would face the accusations.
Given that Assange has made amply clear his opinion concerning the legitimacy of interlocking national security states, it is hard to regard such surprise as genuine. But it may be. Others have been more sanguine, with Vaughan Smith saying Assange really had no choice but to make the jump if he truly felt the US was out to get him, via Sweden.
There will also be a section of global pro-WikiLeaks opinion that will be dismayed -- though why they thought Assange was resisting extradition for 500-plus days is something they would have to explain. The difficulties of the case have been apparent from the start -- a hero of the Left (though he does not claim to be of the Left), accused of s-xual assault/r-pe, by one of the world's most socially progressive countries, and by two women deeply sympathetic to the WikiLeaks cause.
That has been the sentiment behind many of the calls from the liberal-left, that Assange should simply go to Sweden and face the accusations against him. That presumes a neutrality and genuine eye for truth on the part of the Swedish state, an unwise assumption for two reason: first, the possibility that there may be an actual high-level US-Sweden conspiracy going on, and secondly, that the Swedish state legal process may have become so dominated by bureaucratic interests and statist feminism that it would be unable to deal with him fairly.
Let's take the second of these first, and remark on a few salient points:
1) Sweden's legal process for s-x crimes is archaic, and has not been overhauled properly. The slightest accusation -- in this case of non-violent s-xual line-crossing -- not only earns the accused months in remand, but eventually results in a trial in a closed court, before judges appointed by the ruling political parties.
2) The process by which Assange was accused, cleared, and then re-accused of these incidents beggars belief. Two women went to a Stockholm police station one Friday afternoon in August 2010, to either (and here accounts vary) report Assange for s-xual misconduct, or inquire as to how he could be forced to take an STI test. Only one woman, Sofia Wilen, gave a statement, saying that the morning after a s-xual encounter with Assange, he had initiated s-x while she was asleep, and without a condom; by her own testimony, she said that she then gave consent to continue the act.
3) While her statement was being given, police had already contacted a prosecutor to issue an investigation warrant for arrest. When Wilen was informed of this, she refused to sign her own evidence statement, saying that she had been pushed into making a complaint by people around her. The next day, the senior prosecutor for Stockholm rescinded the warrant, saying that there was nothing in the statement suggesting a crime had occurred.
4) By Monday, that decision had been appealed, with the two women now represented by Claes Borgstrom, a big wig in the Social Democratic party, and drafter of the 2005 s-x crimes laws under which Assange was being accused -- laws that many had said were unworkable. The second complainant in the affair, Anna Ardin, now changed her story. She had been interviewed the day after Wilen had told of a rough but consensual s-xual encounter with Assange, but suggested he had torn a condom off during s-x.
5) In the weeks between the Stockholm prosecutor rejecting Wilen's statement as evidence of a potential crime, and the appeal, Ardin's story changed, and her account of rough consensual foreplay became an accusation that Assange had pinned her down with his body during s-x to prevent her applying a condom. This became the basis for a new accusation -- s-xual coercion -- which would have been sufficient as a felony, should the appeal prosecutor not reinstate Wilen's r-pe accusation. In that week, tweets were deleted and blog posts changed to remove any suggestion that Ardin had thought Assange's behaviour to her consensual.
6) The prosecutor to whom the appeal was made -- Marianne Ny -- was a former head of the "Crime Development Unit", whose specific brief was to develop new applications of s-x crimes laws, in areas where they had not previously been applied. She had previously spoken of remand as a form of de facto justice for men accused of s-x crimes, whom the courts would otherwise let free.
7) The European arrest warrant, and the Interpol red notice under which Assange is being extradited, was issued with a speed and seriousness usually reserved for major violent criminals, rather than someone simply wanted for further questioning, without a charge being present.
That is surely enough to get the antennae going, but there's more:
1) Assange's visit to Sweden during which these incidents occurred had raised alarm in both the centre-right Swedish establishment and the US. Had he been granted the residency he applied for that month, Assange could have become a registered Swedish journalist and based WikiLeaks there, gaining the substantial protections the Swedish state extends to journalists. It has been suggested the US had told Sweden it would curtail intelligence sharing if that occurred. After the accusations were made, Assange was denied residency.
2) Sweden's defence and intelligence needs are overwhelmingly oriented to its relations to Russia. Sweden runs a huge northern fleet, and maintains a national service-based conscript army, all based on the premise that a military emergency between Russia and Europe would see the former try to enter through the top. Sweden's right, concentrated in the ruling Moderate party, have for years been trying to abolish Swedish neutrality, and have it join NATO. In fact, Sweden and NATO have been working together closely for years. Sweden becoming a centre for WikiLeaks would have been a disaster for that process.
3) Claes Borgstrom, the politician-lawyer who suddenly popped up to assist the two women accusers, is the law partner of Thomas Bodstrom, the former justice minister in the Social Democratic government that lost power in 2006. In 2001 Bodstrom had been an enthusiastic advocate of secret renditions at US request, with several Swedish citizens of Egyptian origin (Egyptian political refugees granted asylum and citizenship by Sweden, by another part of the state process) rendered back to Egypt and tortured. The entire interconnected Swedish establishment was oriented to a "war on terror" superstate strategy, and an Assange trial on criminal matters would fit that perfectly.
4) In 2011, a grand jury was secretly empanelled in Maryland in the US to bring down indictments in the matter of "cablegate", the vast release of files that -- it is usually assumed -- were leaked to WikiLeaks by Bradley Manning, a junior information officer who had become connected to the world of hacking through a personal relationship with a Boston-based hacker. Manning is now on trial on a brace of charges that will most likely see him in prison for the rest of his life; the intent of the prosecutors convening the grand jury appears to be to dynamically link Assange with Manning's leaking of the files, so that Assange can be indicted and extradited for espionage.
Those two interconnecting processes suggest that Assange is within reason to do whatever he can to stay out of the clutches of both states. He is banking on the fact that Ecuador -- one of a brace of South American states that turned leftwards in the past decade -- would be willing to assist the WikiLeaks leader, given the "cablegate" releases showed the way in which a hidebound US diplomatic elite saw the Latin-American left turn as nothing other than another challenge to US interests by "crypto-communists".
In 2010, an Ecuadoran deputy justice minister said that Assange would be welcome in Ecuador, a promise walked back to some degree by President Rafael Correa. However, Correa has recently appeared on Assange's World Tomorrow
chat show, and he might be willing to take the heat.
For the moment, the Ecuadorian government is playing a straight bat, issuing this statement:
"This afternoon Mr Julian Assange arrived at the Ecuadorian Embassy seeking political asylum from the Ecuadorian government. As a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration for Human Rights, with an obligation to review all applications for asylum, we have immediately passed his application on to the relevant department in Quito. While the department assesses Mr Assange's application, Mr Assange will remain at the embassy, under the protection of the Ecuadorian Government."
So, on we go. The extradition clock continues to tick, the Swedes will fume, and should asylum be granted, a full-blown diplomatic crisis will occur. Where will be in a year? Quite possibly in Quito. Not exactly the Bond-style escape to a yacht in Vaughan Smith's helicopter, but quite a move all the same.