Julian Assange is back in the news, and the British media remains overwhelmingly hostile. I have continued publicly to support Julian despite this, because I don’t think he has been treated fairly under the law in a country that promises to apply justice without favour.
I became involved with Julian and Wikileaks by accident. I offered the court a bail address for Julian in December 2010, when it became clear that no one else was in a position to offer a workable bail solution.
I kept Julian out of remedial confinement because I felt that it was in the public interest for him to continue to participate in the important debate about transparency that he had initiated. I believed that in doing so I was supporting due process of law.
On 5 February 2016, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) declared that Sweden and the United Kingdom had arbitrarily detained the WikiLeaks founder since his arrest on 7 December 2010 due to legal actions against him by both countries.
Arbitrary detention is defined as detention of an individual in a case where there is no likelihood or evidence that they have committed a crime or where there has been no proper due process of law.
UNWGAD say that the Swedish prosecutor failed to proceed properly and prosecute the matter and, thus, that the case has been ruined. They don’t accept that Julian has run from justice. They feel that it was reasonable for him to escape persecution by claiming legal asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy.
Accordingly, if there is a valid case to answer, the legal authorities in Sweden have manifestly failed the women who now may never get their day in court and have denied Julian the opportunity to clear his name.
The British Government tells us that UNWGAD’s findings are not legally binding in Britain, yet at the same time, the Swedish and British authorities are in breach of a raft of international human rights legislation by ignoring it. And both governments have condemned other countries that have flouted UNWGAD judgements.
UNWGAD have expressed many of the misgivings that I have had from the beginning about the way that the case has been handled. They criticise of the fact that Julian has not been permitted to see any of the evidence against him and is therefore unable to defend himself. They say that there has been a “failure of performance by the criminal administration” which has kept the case in a “state of indefinite procrastination”.
Rather than blaming Julian for staying in the Ecuadorian embassy, they criticise the authorities for not having the flexibility to “explore alternative ways of administering justice” and for damaging Julian’s health by denying him proper access to medicine. They cite as one example the refusal to grant Julian access to an MRI test.
UNWGAD observe that Julian has been “under constant and highly intrusive surveillance” and that the UK has “drastically changed” its extradition law since Julian lost his case in the Supreme Court in 2012. They add that one reason for British extradition law being reformed was the Swedish abuse of extradition law.
If the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, intends to charge Julian she needs to interview him. In Julian’s press conference on 5 February at the Frontline Club, Julian’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, stated that the Swedish authorities have interviewed 44 people that they wanted to charge in Britain in the 5 years since Julian was initially taken into police custody in December 2010. She said that the British Crown Prosecution Service had emailed Marianne Ny seeking to dissuade her from interviewing Julian in London. It seems the prosecutors don’t actually want to prosecute Julian and are instead choosing to keep the matter in limbo, giving the appearance that he, and not Sweden’s prosecutor, is at fault.
The UNWGAD decision was not unanimous, nor was the British Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision of 30 May 2012 dismissing Julian’s appeal against an earlier decision to extradite him.
On 5 February 2016 the British Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, publicly denigrated UNWGAD, claiming that it was “a group made up of lay people not lawyers”. However, UNWGAD’s jurists have legal expertise that Britain has accepted when judgements have gone in Britain’s favour.
The UN, with British participation, established UNWGAD as the highest international authority to determine whether an individual has lost his or her liberty in a legal procedure where either there is no likelihood of a real case to answer or no proper legal process.
Although the UK and Swedish governments reject UNWGAD’s ruling, both authorities participated by submitting evidence and have championed UNWGAD’s findings in the past. It is reasonable to believe that they would have supported this finding had the final decision gone their way.
Norwegian lawyer Mads Andenas, the former chair of the UNWGAD who was involved in the early stages of drafting the report on Julian Assange’s detention, has stated that the panel came under considerable political pressure from the US and UK.
Although the UN report challenges journalists to question the conduct of the legal authorities, the mainstream media’s reaction in the UK so far has mainly been to do the opposite. Instead of publishing serious investigations of the allegations against Julian, the Swedish procrastination over questioning him in Britain and the Swedish and British Governments hypocrisy over UNWGAD’s decision, they have printed uninformed diatribes against Julian.
The interviews that I have done since the UNWGAD released its findings have been conducted on the assumption that the Swedish sexual allegations and the prosecutor’s conduct are safely in the criminal domain and could not be politically influenced in any way. It’s as if the UNWGAD report didn’t exist at all.
It’s extraordinary that we have so little self-reflection. British journalism has created an internal correctness with Julian. Reporters feel peer and editorial pressure not to support him publicly and are pushed to express contempt.
I have seen emails from a senior Fleet Street editor to a reporter he had tasked to write a nasty hit pieces on Julian for the Sunday papers. I have heard editors that I respect tell me how much they dislike Julian and justify the colour of their reporting because of it.
A leading British broadcaster sent a reporter in a bow tie and a megaphone to heckle Julian outside the embassy on one of his balcony speeches. This is considered to have been deserved and funny, but I struggle to see how this communicates anything to the public save that the established media hate him and have sided with authority to do him in.
Julian can’t win. Journalists pressure him to submit to interviews. If he does them, he is a narcissist. If he doesn’t, he’s hiding his beleaguered operation from public scrutiny.
I saw what this looked like for Julian while he stayed in my house. News organisations broke agreements as a matter of course and mostly reported the controversy surrounding him rather than the issues about transparency that he raised or the abuses of human rights that he revealed.
I saw him struggle to get his version of events out against an overwhelming tide of online smear and propaganda, the like of which might have no precedent, by well resourced tax-funded governmental public relations outfits and their corporate equivalents.
In 2011, the hacker group Anonymous, released a batch of stolen emails that revealed a plot by three US defence contractors, Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and HBGary Federal, to “combat” Wikileaks and its supporters on behalf of the Bank of America.
If journalism is supposed to address the balance and help level the playing field then it has not done so for Julian. This has been more pronounced since the stories that he exposed through Wikileaks dried up when the funding that it relied upon through Mastercard and Visa was stopped as a result of US pressure on the card companies.
I recall overhearing a meeting where Julian’s supporters were trying to persuade him to engage the services of a leading “reputational management” outfit. Julian opposed the idea, but agreed to speak to some. When they found an agency that would talk to Wikileaks, the offer of support was withdrawn because the agency’s corporate clients threatened to withdraw their business.
Bizarrely, some of the press have called Julian a coward. It’s a lazy charge to level against someone who has challenged the most powerful people and institutions in the world. Knowing Julian, I find him similar in character to many senior and talented people in the news industry, inclined as they are to be determined and forceful in their views.
Self-criticism is not our strong point. Criticism of journalism in the British press is almost certain to be a product of corporate competition rather than an attempt to be accountable in the way we expect others to be.
Julian’s character matters only in relation to whether he is a suitable person to handle sensitive documents through the Wikileaks service that he built. It is the same question that one might reasonably ask of the character of any editor of a national newspaper.
The fact that some people don’t like the way he walks or talks has no bearing on the criminal allegations against him. Just as UNWGAD finds that the legal authorities have allowed the criminal case against Julian to have been polluted by the political controversy surrounding his Wikileaks activities, many journalists have allowed a contempt for Julian, perhaps coloured by the fact that Wikileaks competes with traditional journalism, to promote an assumption of his guilt.
The UNWGAD findings ring true because they confirm the doubts about the case that I have had. I have always felt that Julian was not getting the same justice that you or I would expect to receive.
I believe that the weight of negative sentiment expressed against Julian as a public enemy by so many people of influence and authority has filtered down to pollute the conduct of the case. Perhaps our society is not actually capable of delivering justice in a criminal case where one of the parties has been involved in political controversy.
As long as I perceive this as an unequal fight, I think its important to stand up for Julian to the best of my ability. To be cowed, I believe, would be to give in to bullies and hypocrites.