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Tom Head

Human Rights and the Julian Assange Extradition

By December 8, 2010

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested in Britain, and seems set to be extradited to Sweden next week for questioning on alleged sexual assault charges.

According to media reports, two women have stated that Assange sabotaged a condom (in the first case) and refused to stop having sex after a woman withdrew consent when she realized he wasn't wearing a condom (in the second). These are serious charges; both are forms of sexual assault, and while the former could technically be legal in many U.S. states, the latter would probably be classified as rape by force. Assange should face questioning.

But I see two dangers.

The first is that the reported sexual assaults could be used by the British government simply as an excuse to detain Assange during a critical period as a means of suppressing or delaying WikiLeaks' release of government documents. If the UK extradites Assange to face WikiLeaks-related charges in the United States or elsewhere and simply forgets about the Swedish sexual assault case, then we will know that the British government is no leader in international human rights, and does not take sex crimes seriously. Considering Britain's own very real problem with underprosecuted sexual assault cases, this would send a very dark message to rape survivors in Britain. The UK should extradite Assange to Sweden, and only to Sweden, as soon as possible.

But there's another danger, and that is that Assange's enthusiastic base of supporters seems to be waging war on Sweden's sexual assault laws, criticizing the women who accused Assange, and generally promoting rape culture. One particularly disgusting editorial by James Catlin, Assange's former attorney, is a case in point. I'm not going to quote it here. Another strange critic of Swedish sexual assault laws is former feminist activist Naomi Wolf, who ridiculed the accusations, describing them as comparable to complaints about texting while on a date. They aren't.

I believe Assange is entitled to the presumption of innocence in the sexual assault case, I have serious doubts about the way the case has been handled, and I do not want to see him prosecuted on any unrelated WikiLeaks-related charges. But I†completely agree with Feministe's Jill Filipovic:

[I]t is totally possible to support the WikiLeaks project and to think that the international response to Assange and the project is thoroughly f--ked up and to think we should withhold judgment on whether or not Assange is actually a rapist and also to think that we should withhold judgment on whether the women are lying, and to not discredit the women involved, and to not create a hostile climate for rape survivors, and to not play into every tired old stereotype about women and rape.

Seriously, we can chew gum and walk at the same time.

Life can be complicated. Let's not make it simpler than it is at the expense of free speech, due process, or the equal protection rights of sexual assault survivors. A commitment to human rights requires us to honor all three, even when they may initially appear to be at odds.


December 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm
(1) Swede says:

Being a Swede myself, I must mention this:

Actually it can be good for JA to be sent to Sweden, because this sexual abuse case has first priority over any extradition claims from the US. Also, before Sweden can extradite, a Swedish court not only has to approve the US claims, they also has to ask UK authorities for permission, because he came from there. This means that two countries have to approve.

If the Swedish case is dropped, and JA is a free man, Sweden has to wait 2 weeks before they donít have to ask UK for permission. This case might actually be a good insurance for JA.

If he still is in Sweden, 2 weeks after acquittal or served time, both a Swedish court (which he of course can appeal to higher court), and the Swedish gouverment has to approve the US claims. They can actually change the courtís decision, and in the name of humanity deside to not extradite him. But, and this is important, the gouverment canít change the courtís decision the other way around.

These all issues and claims will take over 18 months. Time and many juridically processes are JA’s best friends right now.

December 14, 2010 at 8:20 pm
(2) Jess says:

While I completely agree with the comment above, the problem for those of us concerned by this case is that at this stage the Swedish prosecution case AND interpol response seems rather over-zealous for what may well be a crime but would appear to be (from a legal perspective) a relatively minor crime.

Given that sex-crimes the world over are under prosecuted and have extremely low conviction rates, this whole thing smells rather political.

For this reason, faith in the Swedish justice system to administer the rule of law is precisely what is uncomfortably being questioned. I am not of the opinion that these women made up their stories, and there may well be a case to answer. The fact that these women did not, apparently, actually want to prosecute, however, leaves one wondering what the hell is going on.

Would Assange be afforded all the ordinary protections of Swedish law if/when extradited? That is a very interesting question!

December 17, 2010 at 12:51 pm
(3) Christina says:

The only folks who wonder what is going on with a rape survivor who doesn’t want to prosecute is someone who has never been raped. Why in the world would anyone want to go through what these two women have gone through in the last weeks? And if you think women aren’t paying attention to how they are being treated, and that this won’t go through their heads if/when the same thing happens to them and it’s time to dial the police, you have another think coming to you.

I was unaware that rape is “(from a legal perspective) a relatively minor crime.”

December 22, 2010 at 12:27 am
(4) undecided says:

I have just read the ‘particularly disgusting article’ referred to and can’t quite see what has angered the Mr Head so much. It is written by a barrister who represented Assange in October and therefore ought to be in a position to comment authoritatively on the case. This he does in somewhat provocative terms, presumably a reflection of his frustration with what he seems to feel was a lack of professionalism (my words, not his) in the way the case has so far been presented. What I did not find in the article, but is strongly implied by Mr Head, is any derogatory comments about the accusers. Let’s do as Assange suggests and go to the source, see for ourselves whether we agree with the interpretation, and only then align ourselves.

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