Why is Julian Assange in jail?

December 8, 2010

Nicole Colson looks at the new developments in the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange--and asks why he remains in jail when he hasn't been charged with a crime.

THE SUPPOSED "international manhunt" for Julian Assange ended December 7 when the WikiLeaks founder turned himself into police in London--and was promptly locked up by the British court system.

The day before, British authorities secured an arrest warrant for Assange, who is wanted for questioning in relation to allegations of sexual assaults in Sweden. Assange was denied bail at a British court hearing, despite the fact that several people, including left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach and journalist John Pilger, appeared in court on his behalf and offered to post more than $280,000 in bond for his release.

As a result of the judge's ruling, Assange will remain in jail until at least December 14. His lawyer Mark Stevens told Sky News after the hearing that he will ask the court for bail for Assange again. "I have described this Swedish process as a persecution and not a prosecution," he said.

The denial of bail for Assange seems designed to allow U.S. authorities time to find a way to eventually get the Australian citizen extradited to the U.S. for prosecution related to WikiLeaks releases, which have caused an uproar around the world, and nowhere more so than in the U.S. As Sky News foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall wrote, "The longer he is in [Britain], the more possibility there is the Americans will find a law they can reasonably charge him with and get a prosecution."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

In an interview with Salon.com, attorney Douglas McNabb, who specializes in federal criminal defense and international extradition cases, said that there is the possibility that the U.S. has not only a sealed indictment prepared against Assange, but also has an extradition request under seal.

RAPE AND sexual assault are very serious charges that deserve investigation. But it's impossible to take the charges against Assange at face value given the nature of the attack on him by the world's superpowers.

Assange is wanted by Swedish authorities for questioning in connection with one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape, all alleged to have been committed in August 2010.

Although the details remain unclear, reports suggest that Assange is accused of entering into consensual sex acts with two different women. In one case, he reportedly failed to wear a condom against the wishes of his partner; in another, he allegedly failed to stop during sex after a condom broke. Another allegation claims that Assange initiated sex with one of the women while she was sleeping.

These are disturbing charges. However, the idea that they should spark an "international manhunt," complete with an Interpol "red notice," should raise suspicions--especially concerning the timing of the Interpol notice so soon after the latest release of documents by WikiLeaks, to the fury of the U.S. government.

As Laura Flanders noted in TheNation.com:

[S]ince when is Interpol [the investigative arm of the International Criminal Court at The Hague] so vigilant about violence against women? If women's security is suddenly Interpol's priority--that's big news!

Tell it to hundreds of women in U.S. jails and immigration detention centers--who charge that they can't get justice against accused rapists--or women in the U.S. military (two of out three of whom allege they've experienced assault.) In Haiti, hundreds of unprosecuted cases of rape in refugee camps could use some of Interpol's attention.

The same politicians and media pundits who have little to say about violence against women or women's rights in general are now suddenly very keen on bringing Assange to "justice." Meanwhile, as Assange sits in jail, the politicians and military officials who exposed by WikiLeaks for authorizing torture and massacres of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely never face a day in court. All that shows how cynical and hypocritical this misuse of the legal system is.

One of the more striking aspects of the case is that Assange, according to his lawyer Mark Stephens, has not yet actually been charged with any crime. As Stephens noted in an interview with Sky News, Assange is still only wanted for questioning in Sweden--and that raises, he says, "a question of law" as to whether the Swedish prosecutor "is entitled to extradite him for the purpose of questioning."

Swedish prosecutors initially brought and then dropped charges against Assange in August. At the time, Chief Prosecutor Eva Finne said in a statement that Assange was "no longer wanted" and "is not suspected of rape." In September, however, the prosecutors revived the allegations. And the hunt for Assange began in earnest this month--not coincidentally timed with the latest release of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks.

As Mark Stephens noted:

[W]hen you get a situation where the original charges were dropped by the senior-most prosecutor in Sweden, on the grounds that there was not one shred of evidence to even warrant an investigation, and then a politician intervenes a few weeks later and goes to another city and another prosecutor on the same facts, and she begins this kind of witch-hunt, then I think you really have got to worry about the impartiality of the system and the process.

ASSANGE'S ARREST and especially the fact that he was denied bail seem to add weight to the belief that the charges against him are designed to shut down his work on WikiLeaks as well as keep him imprisoned until a reason can be found to extradite him to the U.S.

According to the Guardian's Afua Hirsch, any attempt to extradite Assange from Britain to the U.S. is likely to face a lengthy court battle. But if he is returned to Sweden, there is a good likelihood that he would eventually be sent to the U.S. for prosecution:

Even if Assange's case falls outside the remit of Sweden's treaty with the U.S., there is scope for the country to agree to his extradition to the U.S.

Swedish law permits extradition more generally to countries outside Europe, although the process is subject to safeguards, including a ban on extradition for "political offences" or where the suspect has reason to fear persecution on account of their membership of a social group or political beliefs.

Meanwhile, plenty of U.S. politicians--both Democrats and Republicans--are already rewriting the laws to make sure Assange can be prosecuted if the opportunity arises. (If, that is, he isn't assassinated beforehand, as several Republicans have called for.)

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has repeatedly claimed that Assange can be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, while Sens. Joe Lieberman, Scott Brown and Jon Ensign introduced legislation that would make it illegal to publish the names of informants serving the U.S. military and intelligence community. (This is despite the fact that WikiLeaks repeatedly asked U.S. officials for help in determining what needed to be redacted from the cables before they were publicly released--a request the U.S. government refused.)

Under the kind of law that Lieberman and friends are cooking up, other media outlets, such as the New York Times, could face criminal prosecution for publishing WikiLeaks documents or anything like them. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald noted:

Every line of pro-prosecution rationale cited by Feinstein applies equally to journalists--including especially the newspapers from around the world which are publishing all of the same diplomatic cables as WikiLeaks is, and which are publishing them before WikiLeaks even does. How can it possibly be that WikiLeaks should be prosecuted for espionage, but not The New York Times, or The Guardian, or any other newspaper that publishes these cables?

But Joe Lieberman, at least, doesn't mind that. Appearing on Fox News, the senator said that the New York Times was guilty of an "act of bad citizenship" at the least for publishing WikiLeaks documents. "Whether they've committed a crime," Lieberman added, "I think that bears very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department."

That such calls for shutting down the media and imprisoning (if not executing) Assange are occurring during the Barack Obama presidency, and with the support of most Democrats, should give lie to the idea that Democrats will stand up to protect our civil liberties. As Greenwald stated:

To recap "Obama justice": If you create an illegal worldwide torture regime, illegally spy on Americans without warrants, abduct people with no legal authority, or invade and destroy another country based on false claims, then you are fully protected.

But if you expose any of the evils secretly perpetrated as part of those lawless actions--by publishing the truth about what was done--then you are an Evil Criminal who deserves the harshest possible prosecution.

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