Volume 28 - Issue 24 :: Nov. 19-Dec. 02, 2011
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange emerges from London's High Court on November 2 after losing his legal battle to avoid extradition from Britain to Sweden to face questioning over allegations of rape and sexual assault.
A YEAR ago, standing on the steps of London's Royal Courts of Justice after coming straight from what he called "the bottom of a Victorian prison", where he had been detained in solitary confinement, Julian Assange declared with some feeling and a poetic touch that it was "great to smell the fresh air of London again". And, thanking "the people around the world" for their support, the WikiLeaks founder vowed to "continue my work and continue to protest my innocence".
At the time few would have thought that we would still be talking about it a year later. His legal battle to clear his name over allegations of sexual misconduct brought by two Swedish women he met in Stockholm in the summer of 2010, leading to his arrest and a warrant for his extradition to Sweden, continues. There is no early end in sight.
On November 2, Assange was back in court and stood on the same place that he did a year ago. But the mood this time was different. He had just lost his appeal against extradition with the court rejecting the key arguments presented by his legal team. These included the plea that the European Arrest Warrant issued by the Swedish authorities was legally flawed, and that he would not get a fair hearing in Sweden as he believed the case against him was politically motivated. He feared that if he was extradited, the Swedish authorities might hand him over to the United States, which has threatened to prosecute him for leaking classified and confidential documents.
Judges were not persuaded that the extradition would be "unfair and unlawful", nor that the warrant was invalid because it had been issued by a prosecutor and not a "judicial authority". They ruled that the action of the prosecutor was subject to the independent scrutiny of Swedish judges, "which, as judges of another [European Union] member state, we must respect".
They also did not agree that the descriptions of the offences were not a fair and accurate description of the conduct alleged against Assange. "This is self-evidently not a case relating to a trivial offence, but to serious sexual offences," ruled Lord Justice Thomas and Justice Ouseley, adding that Swedish prosecutors had been "proportionate" in their actions. They held that, contrary to the defence claim, the allegation that he had sexual intercourse with one of the women without protection "would amount to an allegation of rape in England and Wales".
Assange showed no emotion as the verdict was delivered.
Outside the courtroom, there was a media scrum waiting for him as he emerged, trying hard to look unruffled, with a copy of the judgment which he held up in the air at the request of photographers. Asked whether he was disappointed by the verdict, he dismissed the question with an ironical grin and directed anyone who wanted to know what was "truly going on in the case" to his website "wedenversusassange.com" where the full judgment was available.
Supporters of Assange outside London's High Court on November 2.
Despite persistent media questioning, especially from the notoriously aggressive television reporters who kept thrusting their microphones at him, Assange avoided commenting directly on the verdict except to highlight what he regarded as the unfairness of his situation considering that he had not been charged with any crime.
"I have not been charged with any crime in any country. Despite this, the European arrest warrant is so restrictive that it prevents U.K. courts from considering the facts for a case. We will be considering our next steps in the days ahead. No doubt there will be many attempts made to try and spin these proceedings as they occurred today but they are merely technical,'' he said.
And with that Assange was off, escorted by his close friends and security detail who formed a protective ring around him as a large crowd milled around with people trying to shake his hand and take his photograph. As he headed for a waiting taxi, he was trailed by hundreds of slogan-raising supporters who said they were "outraged" by the verdict. Among them was a group of anti-capitalist "Occupy London" protesters who used a megaphone to voice their support. "Occupy London support you," they cried.
"Assange is probably the most amazing person in recent history who's upset so many powerful people in such a short space of time, so it's obviously not a level playing field," said Ciaron O'Reilly, one of the many who had spent the entire morning outside the court. A banner fixed to the court's iron railings read: "Free Assange! Free Manning! End the wars".
This was Assange's second unsuccessful stab at having the extradition warrant quashed. In February this year, a lower court ruled that he should be extradited, rejecting the argument that he would not get a fair trial in Sweden. The High Court upheld that verdict.
Assange's friend Vaughan Smith, whose country house Ellingham Hall in Norfolk has been his home since his arrest, said that "people are disappointed … but Julian has become pretty robust.... You don't get a sense of dismay. It is a case of soldiering on," he said.
Assange still has the option of moving the Supreme Court on the grounds that the case raised issues of general public importance and has 14 days to appeal though he would need the High Court's permission to do so. At the time of writing (November 7) this report, his lawyers were inclined to appeal. Assange would only say that he was considering his "next steps".
There is also a further stage, post-Supreme Court – the European Court of Human Rights. So, on the face of it, there is still much to play for. One senior lawyer said he did not think `Assange's legal team "would kill it off at this stage because there are some legal issues at stake". But with legal bills piling up (his High Court appeal alone is reported to have cost him in the region of £100,000; and he could be looking at a similar bill if he goes to the Supreme Court) and funds dwindling, his supporters are obviously concerned.
Vaughan acknowledged that despite a legal defence fund, which was supported by donations, it was "reasonable to assume he is struggling with his legal fees". There have been suggestions that he might be forced to throw in the towel because of economic pressures. The well-known legal commentator David Allen Green wrote in New Statesman that it "is difficult to see why there is now any good reason for Assange to seek further delay in returning to Sweden, especially if he has scarce resources for funding his legal defence".
By now the case is too well-known to bear repetition. Assange acknowledges that he had sex with the two women in question but insists that it was consensual and denies any coercion. Their allegations, he claims, were an afterthought and part of a larger campaign to smear him by those he has exposed through WikiLeaks. His supporters have alleged that he might have been a victim of a "honey trap" engineered by forces embarrassed by WikiLeaks' exposes.
During the appeal hearings, Assange's lawyer Ben Emmerson said that the women involved in the case may have found sex with his client "disrespectful, discourteous or disturbing," but said that it had been entirely consensual. He also argued that his client's actions would not be illegal in the context of English law. "The conduct that is complained of would not constitute a crime in this jurisdiction," he said.
Swedish prosecutors have not charged Assange with any crime but want him to return to Sweden to answer the allegations. Since his release on bail in December 2010, his movements are heavily restricted. He has been living under curfew at Ellingham Hall and must wear an electronic tag, besides reporting to the local police every day. His supporters have likened it to virtual "house arrest".
Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is in deep financial crisis and faces closure if it is not able to raise sufficient funds over the coming months. It has already been forced to suspend its publishing operations in order to concentrate on raising money to fight what it describes as the "unlawful" and "arbitrary" blockade imposed by a number of Western financial companies, including the Bank of America, Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and Western Union, as part of a "politically motivated" campaign by U.S. authorities to destroy WikiLeaks for disclosing damaging classified U.S. documents.
Assange told a crowded press conference in London that WikiLeaks was facing an "existential" threat and that if the financial blockade persisted it would no longer be able to carry on its work. WikiLeaks would need $3.5 million over the next 12 months in order to survive. The implications of the continued blockade went beyond WikiLeaks and its work, he warned.
"If this financial attack stands unchallenged, a dangerous, oppressive and undemocratic precedent will have been set, the implications of which go far beyond WikiLeaks and its work. Any organisation that falls foul of powerful finance companies or their political allies can expect similar extrajudicial action. Greenpeace, Amnesty International and other international NGOs that work to expose the wrongdoing of powerful players risk the same fate as WikiLeaks. If publishing the truth about war is enough to warrant such aggressive action by Washington insiders, all newspapers that have published WikiLeaks' material are on the verge of having their readers and advertisers blocked from paying their subscriptions," he said.
An alternative system to transfer funds to WikiLeaks is in place to beat the blockade. Its details are available on www.wikileaks.org/support.
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