Assange and Wikileaks, the Walmart of whistleblowing?

Sometimes it useful to go back to when a story first broke to get some perspective on where it is now. This snapshot is from the BBC’s Newsnight edition from the day after it ‘escaped’ to the Ecudorian Embassy earlier in the summer:

Julian Assange is not worried so much about going to Sweden as being inducted into a legal process that could see him end up in the US to face trial for espionage, or worse. Fair enough, I suppose, since they’re the ones who really want him.

And they really do want him.

But on the Human Rights Ireland blog Colin Murray notes a number of inconvenient aspects for the would be hero of the story…

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Assange should not be planning any trips to the US at any point in the future, the notion that the Swedish or UK Governments would acquiesce in transferring him into US custody if there was any possibility that the death penalty would be at issue, is fanciful. For a start, both countries are obliged to follow the ECHR’s requirement, as part of the prohibition against inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), not to be complicit in the death penalty by extraditing individuals to a country seeking to impose such a penalty. This is known as the Soering Principle, after a case in which the European Court of Human Rights prevented the UK from extraditing an individual facing the death penalty to the US (para.111):

[I]n the Court’s view, having regard to the very long period of time spent on death row in such extreme conditions, with the ever-present and mounting anguish of awaiting execution of the death penalty, and to the personal circumstances of the applicant, especially his age and mental state at the time of the offence, the applicant’s extradition to the United States would expose him to a real risk of treatment going beyond the threshold set by Article 3. A further consideration of relevance is that in the particular instance the legitimate purpose of extradition could be achieved by another means which would not involve suffering of such exceptional intensity or duration.

There would be no doubt that extraditing Assange to the US in circumstances where he faced the death penalty would breach the rule in Soering. And for the UK’s part, much as it may not like the subsequent extensions of this rule in the Chahal case to prevent it from deporting or extraditing individuals to countries where they face a real risk of torture (as seen by the Abu Qatada debacle earlier this year), the UK has not sought to ignore its ECHR obligations in this regard. Ultimately, if the US requested Assange’s extradition, it would be as easy for the US to make such a request to the UK as it would be to Sweden (negating any need for “Trojan Horse” criminal charges). And if any ECHR member state were to agree to such a request, it would be on the basis of stringent requirements that the death penalty not be imposed.

At the time, the reporter noted that what Assange needed was twofold: the Ecudorian legal process to grind through in his favour (it now has); and to get out of the Embassy (which he has not yet achieved).

Hmmm… this story throws up a lot of issues, not least whether Mr Assange is as passionate about outing privacy seeking governments in Ecuador and Russia as he has been about western governments… Though even that doesn’t quite cover it.

I’ve only crossed swords with Mr Assange once, here in the comment zone of Slugger as it happens. He pretty much laid into me for suggesting that governments (like all organisations) do need some private space in which to do some blue sky thinking.

Whatever the outcome of these events, it leaves Wikileaks in a peculiar place…

Some of the material released by them has certainly had a public interest attached. Yet some of it has only had a certain prurient or entertaining value precisely because it had previously been, er, secret.

For me Walmart of government whistle blowing has been brought to this odd pass by the scale rather than the nature of its activities.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty