ON THE 19th AUGUST, outside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, I watched several hundred people stand for hours in a show of solidarity with a man who refuses to face rape charges. Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks, emerged onto the balcony of the embassy that has granted him political asylum, and gave a brief speech, to the loud approbation of a crowd encircled by the police that want to arrest him.
To his defenders, he is a martyr for free speech and an opponent of secret government – a man who leads an organization that has stunned the world with details of the cynical deals made between America and many other nations, especially in South America and the Middle East. But in Sweden, Assange is under suspicion of rape and wanted for a final interview before being charged. In many people’s eyes, he’s been set up, and they suspect that extradition to Sweden would result in a swift extradition to the United States, where it is believed he might face execution.
The Swedish police first interviewed Assange in August 2010, concerning allegations of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one of rape, after which he came to the UK. Assange has not actually been formally charged, as many people have pointed out – but this is not quite as simple as it sounds. In Sweden, the formal charge is only made after the prosecuting evidence has been gathered, unlike in the UK where a defendant is charged and then investigated. In his legal fight against extradition in the English courts, Assange tried to argue that the offences he’s been accused of are not offences under English law, but the High Court rejected that claim. In their final judgment, they also ruled that, though he has not been charged, “criminal proceedings have commenced against Mr Assange”.
Indeed, it would not be possible for Sweden to extradite Assange merely for questioning. The Extradition Act states that the extradition warrant “is issued with a view to [the defendant’s] arrest and extradition … for the purpose of being prosecuted for the offence.” Assange is wanted in Sweden for a second interview, following which he would be charged. And according to Swedish law, his trial would have to commence not more than two weeks afterwards.
It has been argued, though, that Sweden ought to interview Assange in London, to assuage the doubts of those concerned about his possible extradition to the US. But it’s not at all clear of what benefit this would be to the Swedish authorities, since they will formally charge him following this second interview – and the charges can only be faced in Sweden. Assange has already shown his unwillingness to go to Sweden, and is unlikely to forego his asylum to do so when he has been charged. Sweden has refused to guarantee that he would not be extradited to the US, claiming that they can only judge the validity of an extradition warrant when they receive it – and the US can only make the request when Assange is in Sweden.
Despite this, Assange would actually be slightly less at risk of extradition to the United States in Sweden than in the UK. Both countries are prohibited by the European Convention of Human Rights from extraditing someone to a country where they would face charges of a capital offence, or prison conditions so bad they amount to torture – as they arguably do for Bradley Manning, the corporal who leaked many of the US government documents to Wikileaks. But extradition from Sweden would also require the additional consent of the UK, where Assange enjoys a high level of popular support. Many American politicians and media pundits have made bloodthirsty remarks, and suggested a trial for treason or espionage (which faces the death penalty), but the European Convention clearly makes Assange’s extradition illegal under such inhumane circumstances.
Having exhausted all his options in the lower courts, the Supreme Court of the UK also upheld his extradition warrant, after which Assange skipped bail. He was granted political asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy, itself an issue of dubious legality, since the 1951 Refugee Convention allows asylum only for those with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted”. This definition of ‘persecution’ does not normally include the prosecution of a person under laws enacted by a democratically elected parliament, after the person has been allowed to challenge the case multiple times in the courts. Nonetheless, even if he is never extradited, Assange will still be liable for arrest in the UK for breaching his bail terms.
On 16th August, Assange was granted asylum by the Embassy of Ecuador, but the UK refused to grant him safe passage out of the country. The Foreign Office then made a very clumsy move, and sent a letter to the Ecuadorean ambassador that ‘reminded’ him of the powers the Foreign Secretary has to revoke an embassy’s diplomatic status. These powers do exist, but they are limited and would cause a major diplomatic headache, as well as requiring significant justification in international law under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It is very unlikely that the UK would risk setting a precedent for the entry by the police of other countries into its embassies, merely in order to arrest a man suspected of sexual assault.
The result is a stalemate. Assange could potentially remain in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for years, or even for the remainder of his life, acting as a continual embarrassment to the UK, the US, and Sweden. What is certain is that if he steps outside the embassy doors, he will be immediately arrested and deported to Sweden. Whether or not the charges against him are true, we may never know. They can only be proved in a court of law, and it is quite possible that Assange will never enter one again in his life.