Julian Assange: Hero And Villian


OPINION: The risk of Julian Assange being bundled off to the US is real. But so is the risk of him being run down in the street. Mathew Kenneally weighs in.

Julian Assange has returned to the news. Last week he offered to hand himself over if the UN Working Group against Arbitrary Detention ruled against him. It seems Julian had a tip that, the UN Working Group had confused “arbitrary” for “voluntary”.

I’m not going to waste words on the working group’s “work”. The “work” has presented an opportunity for Assange supporters to once again argue the Swedish criminal proceedings are a ruse to extradite him to the United States.

This argument relies on three discredited propositions: Sweden has refused to guarantee Assange will not be extradited; Sweden has refused Assange’s reasonable offer to be questioned in the UK; and it would be easy to deport Assange from Sweden.

David Green called these “zombie facts”, that will not die.

The first two propositions require little deposition. The Swedish Government cannot guarantee Assange will never be deported to the United States. This is because no criminal charges or extradition request exists.

The authorities do not even know against what charges they would be granting Assange immunity from extradition. Even if they gave such a guarantee it is unlikely to have legal effect. Sweden has an extradition treaty with the United States, the Government cannot just say it does not apply to one guy.

A promise by Sweden to never extradite Assange to Sweden would be akin to the promise made in Team America by Gary Johnston to the female lead that he would never die.

Next, it is true Assange has not been formally charged. This merely reflects the unremarkable fact that the Swedish justice system differs from the UK. In Sweden, a formal indictment follows the investigation process. That investigation process ends with a “second interview”. The arrest warrant requires Assange is to attend a second interview after which the Prosecutor intends to charge him with rape.

Charges cannot be issued until after that second interview (see [142] of the High Court Judgment). Assange is wanted for formal criminal proceedings, not a fireside chat.

To this Assange supporters say, “sure, that may be true, but why is Sweden being so stubborn? Just compromise, interview him in the embassy!”. There is not any compromise position. Sweden want to arrest, conduct a second interview, and charge Assange. You can’t do that in the Ecuadorian embassy.

Last, the conspiracy: it will be easy to extradite Assange to the USA from Sweden. In this fantasy Sweden is a closer ally of the United States than Great Britain. This alternate reality ignores EU rules that would require both the United Kingdom and Sweden to consent to any request by the US to extradite Assange from Sweden. Assange is arguably safer from extradition to the US in Sweden than Britain.

Further, its not even clear the US could mount a credible extradition request. The United States rarely prosecutes national security whistleblowers. Chelsea Manning is the exception not the norm. This is in part because the US lacks laws that clearly prohibit leaking classified information by civilians.

Historically, the US has charged whistleblowers with “espionage”. Problem here: the US/Sweden extradition treaty prohibits extradition for political offenses such as espionage. There is no guarantee the US will find credible charges for an extradition request.

Assange supporters do have an argument that renders all this legal mumbo-jumbo irrelevant. Sweden may merely ‘extraordinarily render’ Assange to the US. ‘Extraordinary rendition’ means kidnapping. At the height of the war on terror it was quite popular. Grab someone off the street and take him or her to Jordan for some waterboarding.

Extraordinary rendition is very last decade. It is doubtful the Swedish public or political system would tolerate a high profile kidnapping. It’s also quite against the law. So sure, the United States could kidnap Assange. A car could also hit him every time he crosses the road. They could storm Ecuador’s embassy. Chances are slim.

In the world of Assange supporters he should escape justice because of a remote chance something really bad could happen to him.

Sorry complainants, no justice for you, Julian Assange is too paranoid to leave the house.

The UN Working Committee of folks or whatever they’re called is a farce. Assange chose to hide out in the Ecuadorian embassy to evade a legitimate EU warrant for bona fide criminal charges. He has conflated his fight against the Swedish prosecutor, with larger fights against US imperialism. Good on him. He would prefer diplomatic digs to a Scandinavian prison. Fair enough, in his shoes maybe I would do the same.

His supporters though, have no excuse. This is not a human rights issue. The UK and Sweden are not bound by this working group’s musings.

Julian Assange did remarkable work at Wikileaks. He remains a valuable and thoughtful voice against mass surveillance and for a free Internet. He is also on the run from the law.

There are no needs or reasons to conflate these struggles. Freeing Assange does not matter. Disrespecting the working group will not see the sky fall in.

He should face his accusers and we should get back to discussing why the RSPCA and Bankstown Council need to access our metadata.


Mathew Kenneally

Mathew Kenneally is a stand up comedian who moonlights as a lawyer. He's a regular new Matilda columnist and is the co-author with Toby Halligan of the satirical blog Diary Leaks. He is also the co-founder of the topical comedy room Political Asylum.