The Assange Case: An Assault on Accountability

By Fazila Farouk · 1 Jun 2012

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“We don’t just have a global financial crisis, we have a global political crisis,” said Alexa O’Brien from the Occupy New York movement on Julian Assange’s talk show, The World Tomorrow, which aired this week on Russia Today just a day before the British Supreme Court upheld an earlier decision by the High Court for Assange to be extradited to Sweden to face questioning for alleged sex crimes.

O' Brien’s words have been uncannily prophetic in framing the problem her interviewer faces. His extradition to Sweden, more than two years after the sex crimes allegations – most people know by now - has very little to do with the violation of a “woman's right to make sexual decisions“.

This case has moved very far away from its initial justifications. In the two years since the Swedish extradition order was issued, the extraordinary effort that has gone into bringing in a man - as yet not charged with any crimes - for mere questioning, clearly points to something far bigger than the allegations being considered by the Swedes.

Assange’s case has indeed turned out to be a profoundly political one, which is inextricably linked to his work on the whistle blowing website, WikiLeaks that is a major embarrassment to many governments around the world, but especially to the superpower America.

The politicisation of Assange’s case was apparent in the judgement read by Nicholas Phillips, the president of the Supreme Court.

Firstly, the decision to uphold the extradition order, while unsurprising given the strong political ties between the US and the UK, was not a unanimous one. It was a five to two majority decision, in which it turns out, the only female judge in the Supreme Court, cast a dissenting vote. Given the circumstances surrounding the case, which she would not have been unaware of, it is worth emphasising that a female judge sought to save Assange from extradition to Sweden.

Secondly, the decision, which finally tipped the verdict, is not even an issue that was argued by the defence team in the appeal hearing. This, Dinah Rose, Assange’s defence lawyer immediately pointed out upon hearing the verdict, as she requested the opportunity to appeal it. Consequently Assange’s legal team was given 14 days to appeal the court’s decision, during which time he will remain in the UK under his current bail conditions.

So what exactly was the decision to uphold the extradition based on?

Assange challenged the authority of the Swedish prosecutor to issue an international warrant of arrest without proper judicial oversight.

However, the UK Supreme Court invoked the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties when considering their response to this challenge. According to Helena Kennedy who is on Assange’s legal team and who was interviewed on the American television programme Democracy Now! shortly after the verdict was delivered:

“What came up in court was the Vienna Convention (that) was invoked by the judge’s to say that, basically, the words — the French words — are the words which they looked at which is "judicial authority"–"autorité judicial," and that has been translated into judicial authority, which we the British common law listeners took to be a judge and a court and certainly that is what the British Parliament thought. Whereas, in fact, to Europeans who have a different system, it would be interpreted as being a prosecutor, and therefore in endorsing the Vienna Convention on extradition, then we committed ourselves to the French interpretation.”

Kennedy also highlighted a clear threat to democratic ideals when she argued, "The idea of a prosecutor demanding that someone is brought by force to their country in order to be questioned, and that that is not a decision being made by a judge or a court, is alarming to us because we believe in judicial independence.”

The Assange case is a harbinger of the assault on democratic accountability currently being mounted by a variety of governments, including our own, with its untiring efforts to pass the Secrecy Bill into law.

WikiLeaks has exposed the underbelly of political power - the corruption, the hypocrisy, the conspiracies, the crony relationships, the collusions, the horse-trading and yes, even the murders of innocents, which we are not allowed to refer to as murders.

With respect to America, WikiLeaks has simply exposed the arrogance of imperial overreach.

Its release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs, also known as the “Cablegate” files, reveals a sickening disrespect for the loss of Middle Eastern lives, evident in the cavalier reporting by American soldiers of the collateral deaths amongst the civilian populations of the two countries.

WikiLeaks has opened the eyes of much of the world to the deceit involved in the so-called “War on Terror” and the release of the war logs represents a threat to America’s global military ambitions, to say the least.

There is not doubt that Assange is seen as a threat to American national security, especially, but not exclusively among rightwing Americans, who believe that his assassination would be in the national interest. It’s even possible to find a list of names on the Internet of people who’ve either directly called for his assassination or insinuated it. It includes former US vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

Assange’s defence lawyers are well within reason to argue that they fear for his safety once he is returned to Sweden. The Swedes, argues American constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald (also interviewed by Democracy Now!), are far more likely to capitulate to American demands because they are a small nation susceptible to pressure from a powerful country. According to Greenwald, Swedish authorities have already allowed CIA renditions of Egyptian nationals on their soil, so it’s not unlikely that they would hand over Assange.

The likelihood that this is on the cards is strengthened by the fact that the US Justice Department has already obtained a sealed indictment against Assange. Some believe it is a sealed extradition order. References to the sealed indictment surfaced in the leaked emails of intelligence firm, Stratfor, also released by WikiLeaks. 

But there is also an extraordinary coalescence of events around the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Sweden’s extradition order this week.

This weekend, after what some describe as a very a long time, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, will be making a diplomatic stopover in Sweden. One of the issues reportedly on her agenda for discussion is “Internet freedom”. We can assume she won’t be advocating more of it. However, there is already speculation that the groundwork may be laid for Assange’s handover during her visit.

This week also marks two years since Bradley Manning, the US army private alleged to have leaked the “Cablegate” files to WikiLeaks, was detained by the US military. His treatment at their hands when he was initially taken into custody can be described as nothing less than a shocking abuse of authority -- blatantly carried out to discourage other whistle blowers. For months Manning was held in solitary confinement, forced to strip naked at night and made to sleep without any bedding at all. Manning’s full-court martial is scheduled for September 2012.

This is what Assange has to look forward to if taken into custody by the US. His legal team warn that once he is inside the virtually impenetrable American detention system, i.e., the one designed for political detentions, it will become near impossible to get him out again.

Things are indeed looking bleak for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, but they are looking far worse for transparency, freedom of speech and the “right to know” – the very foundations that sustain democratic accountability.
Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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