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16. August, 2012

Julian Assange is in the news a lot at the moment, and the argument about what should or shouldn't happen regarding him seems bizarrely polarized.

Assange, as most people probably know, runs WikiLeaks which a while ago published a mass of diplomatic cables, generally embarrassing a bunch of bigwigs, especially in the US. The accusation has also been made that the cables potentially put people in danger, but this is rather tricky to ascertain. Not only that, but when WikiLeaks offered to let officials help redact the cables to prevent endangering lives, they were refused.

Separately, Assange has been accused of rape in Sweden. The facts surrounding this are frequently painted in quite moronic monochrome; a supporter will say that all that happened was a condom broke, whilst his detractors will just say he is accused of raping two women. It is clearly wrong to paint the picture as so simple (even should one turn out to be correct) since the charges were bounced between rape and something-bad-but-not-rape (although some people think this is evidence of conspiracy against him) In any case it seems plausible that he did something pretty nasty and ought to be questioned about it, ignoring everything else.

Before he could be brought in for questioning in Sweden, Assange left for the UK. In December 2010, Assange went to a police station in the UK and was subsequently arrested, but later released on bail. He was to be extradited to Sweden for the crimes allegedly committed there. His lawyers appealed, but ultimately the decision was upheld. However in June 2012 he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and requested political asylum. This was in breach of his bail conditions, meaning he has now definitely broken the law in the UK, regardless of his guilt in Sweden.

The contention is that the only reason he's being sent to Sweden is so he can be extradited to the United States, who could prosecute him for treason, which carries the death penalty. This would be wrong since Assange has not really done anything to the US apart from publish embarrassing things. Furthermore, several renowned newspapers also published information from the leaks, making them just as culpable for this alleged crime.

But this does not actually warrant the hysteria that surrounds the case all over the web. A trip to the wikipedia page for the European Arrest Warrant (the system used to request that the UK send Assange to Sweden) is enough to inform anyone that Assange cannot be extradited from Sweden to the US without the UK's permission. So sending him to Sweden will make it harder, not easier, for him to be sent to the US.

This, alone puts paid to all the people crying "conspiracy" over the fact that Sweden is refusing to interview Assange in the UK or to guarantee he will not be extradited to Sweden. Even so that is ridiculous; they require Assange to be questioned in Sweden — as, apparently they do of everyone else in this situation — and Assange has no right to demand otherwise. Sweden's judiciary is independent from its government, so their diplomats can no more guarantee they will not extradite him to the US then I can, and asking the courts to decide on a case before it's been given to them is all kinds of stupid. Even without guaranteeing anything though, Swedish law does not allow people to be extradited for crimes carrying the death penalty. You have to be fairly paranoid (or worried they're going to find guilty of sexual assault) to try and use this argument.

Then there is the nonsense with the UK's letter to Ecuador's diplomats. If you believe what Ecuador, the rest of South America, and any of Assange's fans claim about the letter, it contained an explicit threat that the UK was going to bust down the doors guns blazing, snatch Assange and fly away.

What the letter actually did was draw Ecuador's attention to a law "that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the Embassy." There were of course other more conciliatory things in the letter, and rather less amicable statements that they consider the use of the embassy in this manner incompatible with the Vienna Convention (the bit of international law that governs diplomatic missions)

Of course it's all written in the language of diplomacy, so what looks fairly innocent could rightly be perceived as a threat. But it is facetious to cry about the UK acting imperialist and trampling on international law by storming the embassy, when Ecuador first harboured a criminal (not just an alleged criminal, since by just being there he's breaching bail.)

This is particularly ridiculous since the Vienna Convention expressly prohibits interfering in the host country's domestic affairs (and whether the UK extradites Assange is such) and since what the UK has said it could do is remove the embassy's diplomatic status (should it indeed by found to have violated the Vienna Convention) and then arrest someone who's currently residing there. If this all went according to plan, then the "inviolability" of diplomatic missions which Ecuador's president likes to refer to is entirely irrelevant, since the building won't be an embassy.

It's slightly more complicated than that because embassies have been used somewhat regularly for people to escape political persecution by claiming asylum, and the UK's law seems to say they can intervene whenever this happens. While this is a genuine issue, noone seems to be claiming that it is a requirement of international law that the host of a diplomatic mission allow them to ship alleged criminals out. In any case, it's certainly not being claimed that Assange is facing political persecution in the UK, it's that he might face it if he is extradited from Sweden to the US, which doesn't seem really to be the point of political asylum, and anyway, as mentioned above, will be strictly harder than extraditing him from the UK, since then both the UK and Sweden would have to agree.

On the other hand there are those who cry that he has endangered the lives of soldiers, that he raped two women and deserves everything he gets. This is also premature since there's little evidence that the leaks endangered anyone and, if it did, the people who could really have redacted the cables to prevent that refused to help. And whilst he ought to answer to the Swedish justice system, it's not in the least bit clear what, if anything, he has done that is criminally wrong.