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.

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  • dwatch

    George Galloway: Julian Assange is only guilty of ‘bad sexual etiquette’ George Galloway has sparked controversy by claiming the sexual assault allegations against Julian Assange in Sweden would not constitute rape in the UK and that the only thing he is guilty of is ‘bad sexual etiquette’.

    Read more:

  • Mick Fealty

    Shakes head…

  • Comrade Stalin

    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.

    I would like someone to explain to me.

    If Assange fears (and feared) his extradition to the US – a reasonable fear in my book – what on earth is he doing travelling to countries with active extradition treaties with the USA ? The rational move would be to stay somewhere like France. And why exactly does he think he is in more danger in Sweden rather than the UK ? The UK’s record on shipping people off to the USA on the slightest whiff of trouble is well known.

    Experience has shown over the past few years that the USA are quite prepared to use anti-terrorism legislation to extradite people on spurious terrorism accusations. I am sure if they wanted to get him that badly they could concoct some kind of charge using those provisions. As they have not yet done so, my instinct is either that they think it’s too politically risky to go after him, or that they have no legal basis to do so.

  • There are actually two elephants in two rooms.
    For those who think Wikileaks has done an excellent job, there is the uncomfortable fact that Mr Assange has reasonable unrelated charges made against him in a country …Sweden…..which has an honourable record (certainly better than Ecuador) on civil rights.
    For those who believe that Mr assange has reasonable charges to answer in a reasonable country…there is the uncomfortable fact that the charges “could” be part of a black propaganda campaign.
    As “Comrade Stalin” points out, Assanges behaviour has bordered on the reckless.
    I dont think its unduly relevant that Wikileaks has been harder on USA and its allies than other nations. USA is allegedly the world leader in Freedom….and as we clearly live in countries that are “free” its certainly more relevant to us how USA behaves than Russia or China.

    Whistleblowers…..there can be no subjective version. One mans “hero” (Bradley Manning for example) is another mans “villain”……..
    While it is desirable that whistleblowers act out of the highest motives …and many do……on for example public health issues, areas of public finance etc….the simple fact is that many are motivated by financial or political motives.
    This doesnt make their “whistle-blowing” any more right or wrong. Our approval or disapproval of “whistle-blowing” cannot be conditional……especially if it is in or not in our political interests.
    Governments may or may not be entitled to secrets but arguably they forfeit that right when they simply stick a “Secret” label on anything. It is the western governments who have devalued the currency of “confidentiality”.