Enter Julian Assange. Yesterday, having seemingly exhausted all efforts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault and rape charges, he walked into the Ecuadorian embassy and requested asylum. This was greeted with astonishment by anyone who isn’t a close Assange-watcher (and I’m not), although those in the know suggest the move wasn’t quite as left field as it seemed.
I should probably put my cards on the table and state at the outset that I am not a fan of Julian Assange. I think he is an extremely effective self-publicist who thrives on his notoriety and being the centre of attention
I don’t regard him as a champion for freedom of information and expression and I don’t for one moment think he set out to be one. It’s one thing to call for government to be open and accountable, it is quite another casually to put people’s lives in danger, often the very people who genuinely believe in freedom of speech.
I do wonder how some of his famous supporters feel about his choice of Ecuador for asylum. True, it isn’t exactly the worst place he could have chosen. I’ve been there and it’s quite lovely, although I doubt Assange will ever get to ride the Devil’s Nose train and gaze up at the majestic peak of Chimborazo, the closest point on earth to the sun.
Lovely it may be, but according to Human Rights Watch, Ecuador’s laws restrict freedom of expression and government officials use these laws against their critics. Those involved in protests marred by violence may be prosecuted on inflated and inappropriate ‘terrorism’ charges.
Still, Assange seems to have formed quite a bond with President Rafael Correa after interviewing him for a TV show on Russia Today (bizarre but true), so I guess that outweighs all those negatives. The country also has a somewhat testy relationship with the Americans, so Assange may have believed he could avoid what he most fears, extradition to the US.
While it’s true the British police can’t barge their way into the embassy and arrest him, unless he is granted asylum he is going to need a very big diplomatic bag to smuggle him out. Francis Fitzgibbon QC suggests he is unlikely to be successful in claiming refugee status and that, in fact, it may be easier for the US to extradite him from here than from Sweden.
So it turns out that what at first looked odd, then possibly quite clever, turns out to be a spectacular own goal by Assange. If you consider the charges he faces in Sweden, it also looks somewhat slippery. Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, many Assange supporters, who are extremely worked up about his rights, seem to have forgotten about the rights of the two women who have accused him of sexual assault.
It is Dominique Strauss-Khan all over again. Powerful and important man accused by lowly or anonymous woman of sexual assault and suddenly it’s all a conspiracy: In DSK’s case, it was a (successful) attempt to discredit him and prevent him becoming French president; with Julian Assange, it is a plan cooked up by the US, with British and Swedish complicity, to have him tried for espionage.
On the contrary, it seems to me that Assange has been given every opportunity to exercise his rights, including having a brilliant legal team, in an attempt to avoid extradition. His accusers, on the other hand, have not been able to exert their rights at all, they just have to sit and wait, a state of affairs their lawyer has described as a tragedy.
Perhaps the most objectionable, and misinformed, aspect of the case put forward by those calling for Assange to be freed is that the allegations against him would not be regarded as rape under English law. As I understand it, and bearing in mind I am neither an expert in the Assange affair nor in the law concerning rape, he is accused of having sexual intercourse with a woman who was asleep and so ‘in a helpless state’.
I am fairly sure that having sex with someone without their consent constitutes rape, even if they’ve had a kiss and a cuddle and gone to bed together. This is not to suggest Assange is guilty, it may be that once all the evidence is considered he is found to be innocent, simply that the allegation against him would also apply under English law.
I assume I will be accused of naivety if I suggest Assange has nothing to be afraid of if he is innocent, so convinced are his supporters that this has nothing to do with rape charges and everything to do with totalitarianism and undermining free speech. Of course, the beauty of a conspiracy theory is that it can never be disproved and there are conspirators everywhere. I am probably in on it too.
But Sweden is not Saudi Arabia, or even Ecuador for that matter. And do you know what, it isn’t easy being a freedom fighter – ask Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. If Assange was the person some like to think he is, he wouldn’t be skulking off to the Ecuadorean embassy in an attempt to evade his persecutors and avoid the charges they’ve manufactured against him, he’d be standing up to them.
Assange may be innocent of rape, but he is not innocent of pursing his own self-interested agenda regardless of the consequences for others.