Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Some thoughts on Assange, justice and the left

It's hard to judge a political faction you are not a member of. Both the left and the right wing in this country are big, floating entities that to assign them a personality is probably a fools errand: see the squabbles between Nadine Dorries and Lousie Mensch, both tory MPs who I disagree with, but also who disagree with each other.

So when I start to criticise an amorphous group of people, take it with a pinch of salt. That all said, I have begun to get infuriated with certain elements of the left. One key insight that those on the left have or have been made aware of, is that the notion of any country as the "good guy" is needlessly simplistic and plain wrong. In particular, thinking of Britain and the US as champions of democracy across the world is to ignore history, even of the last few decades. Both the US and the UK have taken part in actions which have deliberately destabilised or destroyed democratic regimes across the world, because said regimes do not agree with "our" interests. The US, for instance, armed and trained the Taliban in Afghanistan, and even, it has been argued, recreated the idea of jihad in the islamic world. Britain was involved in removing the previous democratic rule in Iran, leading to the religious fundamentalism terrorising the nation today.

A lot of famous intellectuals on the left, such as Chomsky and Pilger have spent a fair amount of time uncovering this sort of hypocrisy, and this is valuable work. After all, we cannot hope to live in a fair and equal world if our own nations are not fair and equal themselves. The problem comes from the moral relativism which springs up from this.

Simon Jenkins, in a recent comment is free article, pointed out that criticising Russia for imprisoning Pussy Riot (who should probably get a little kudos for getting that name mentioned in every media outlet across the world..) was a bit rich coming from the UK, which has committed multiple legal wrongs recently. This is no doubt true: there are problems we need to be dealing with here. But this doesn't make Russia right! Similarly, just because Britain has some dark actions in its past, it doesn't make tin pot dictators in South America and the middle east paragons of virtue. There are reasons not to militarily intervene in a particular situation, but its not as easy as saying, as some on the left do, that "we're just as bad". We categorically are not! Maybe the UK isn't the good guy, but it certainly isn't the bad guy either.

Such either or thinking can creep into many debates. The most obvious recent example is Julian Assange. He was responsible for wikileaks, which most people (on the left at least) think is a force for good, exposing secrets where they should not be. The response of the US to this has not been great, in particular treating Bradley Manning, who was responsible for much of the data leaked in a reprehensible manner. Manning was kept in cruel conditions without charge for excessive periods of time. How this is a fair or proportionate punishment is not clear, and it is a huge blemish on Obama's presidency (most of the blemishes, to my mind, are the failures to curb the US's international behaviour, making Obama's peace prize look even more nutty than it was when he was first given it).

If Assange were to go to America, it is possible that he'd get treated in a similar manner. Of course, there are some who argue he would not, as he is not a member of the US military, and that his behaviour amounts to free speech, something the New York Times also exercised. There are no doubt those in the US who would like him to have the treatment of Manning, certainly. Of course, he would need to be in America for any of this to matter.

Now we come to the events of the last few years. I will recount the facts as I know them, from some reading of various online sources, both pro and anti Assange. There may be some slight mistakes on specifics below, and I apologise for that: I am not aiming for an exact account of events, and I encourage anyone wanting to do so to look into such matters themselves. On my facebook wall I've posted a link to some useful articles, I might try and gather them together at some point in the future.

So, Assange was in Sweden for a while, and, while there, had sexual relations with two women. Said women alleged, a little after the fact, that he had sexually assaulted them. Specifically, that he had had sex with one while she was asleep, that he had sex with both without a condom. In particular, this is an allegation made by one of the women:

“Mr Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina, but she did not want him to do that as he was not using a condom. She therefore squeezed her legs together in order to avoid him penetrating her. She tried to reach several times for a condom which Mr Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without a condom”.

[there are additional documents which apparently go on to say that after a while Assange did put the condom on and she agreed to sexual intercourse http://ripe-tomato.org/2012/08/21/julian-assange-rape-allegations/ ]

So yes. The investigation continued, although at a somewhat slow rate. At one point Assange chose to leave the country, sought permission, and left. Some time after being in the UK, Sweden requested that Assange return to be charged. Note that Assange has yet to be charged with anything. However, as he needs to be arrested in Sweden before he can be charged with anything this is not terribly surprising.

Assange does not wish to be tried in Sweden. He claims this is because if he were to go to Sweden he would face extradition to the United States. He fought against being extradited Sweden all the way to the high court in the UK. When this failed, he sought aslyum with Ecuador. Anyone in fear of persecution can submit to asylum, it is then up to the host country to determine whether they will grant asylum. As I understand the UN laws as such, they have an obligation to grant asylum if said individual is truly in danger of unfair persecution. Of course, Ecuador isn't exactly known for its upholding of human rights. Ecuador has now decided to grant said asylum, after the UK made a silly threat (and it does read as a threat, as far as I see).

As far as I can tell, it is harder to extradite someone from Sweden to the US, because permission must be sought from Sweden and the UK. Neither will grant this when the death penalty is being sought, although of course the US could make a guarantee to that effect and then imprison Assange for the rest of his life, which I imagine he wouldn't be happy with.

One might wonder why the US hasn't just made an extradition request while Assange was in the UK, to which there isn't really an answer as I understand it.

This is all a bit of a mess, and it really doesn't help it when people draw a big line and claim that it is all about wikileaks. Well, no, Assange has been accused of sexual assault, and we should treat that seriously. Its really not for us to determine his guilt, that will be for Sweden's justice system. Its possible for someone to be the founder of wikileaks and a sexual offender. After all, sexual offences happen with a disturbing frequency in modern society, to the point where it is reasonably probable that we all know people who have been assaulted, and people who have done the assaulting.

Its hard not to lose respect for people who defend Assange with their blinkers on. When you are on the same side as George Galloway perhaps its time to get a little worried.


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