The media gears up for a live arrest
18 August 2014
There was a buzz of anticipation all over the news channels and social media Monday morning and, apparently, outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London; it went – loosely – like this:
“Reports suggest that Julian Assange is going to leave the Embassy any time.”
“Looks like he’s going to give himself up to police because of his health problems.”
“No statement yet, but the media are outside in force with some gathered inside for a press conference. Watch this space.”
“Extra police are on duty this morning, ready to move in if required, and a van ready to whisk him away to custody and certain extradition.”
“Suitcases are being brought out of the embassy as we speak.”
The idea that Assange might be about to stroll out the door straight into the clutches of the authorities was sending the media crazy with anticipation – after two long years in the embassy, what a scoop! Think of the pages that could be devoted to describing his downfall! All those smug journos ready to put the knife in and twist, to regurgitate every last detail of Assange’s alleged failings and to point out in no uncertain terms how he’s not like the rest of them, the “proper” journos – the ones, don’t you know, with fat salaries and expense accounts, who carefully pitch their writing to avoid ruffling too many feathers too much or too often, who play by the corporate rules and who not only fail to effectively challenge the things that are wrong themselves, but dismiss and ridicule those who do.
True to form, Esther Addley of the Guardian had already written an article outrageously smearing Assange as an “anti-privacy” campaigner – seriously, did she think she could get away with this? – the paper later having to amend it to “anti-secrecy”. In the Independent meanwhile, Mike Harris came up with this dire piece that predictably fails to examine any of the context of Assange’s situation, glibly telling him to go to Sweden, and also accuses Assange of planting rumours about his health, as if there’s no evidence that lack of fresh air and sunlight over a protracted period is problematic. Harris is clearly going to interpret any public appearance or statement by Assange as evidence of his egotism and he clearly either hasn’t listened to the press conference in full or has failed to take on board its central message. What’s worrying is how many people are going to read this stuff and take it at face value.
The scheduled press conference start time of 9am came and went but a livestream feed duly appeared of the journos chatting amongst themselves as they waited for the two empty places at the table at the front to be filled. Ten minutes later, just as Julian Assange and Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño arrived and seated themselves, the livestream went down. It took a few minutes to get it back, which is presumably why the version now available starts some way into the Minister’s statement and only those who were actually there will know what he said at the outset.
Assange is “leaving soon” but not right now disappointment for the press
Watch the whole press conference here (minus the downtime). Most of Assange’s own statement and the question and answer session can be viewed on this RT report:
The bit everyone wanted to hear came at the beginning of the question and answer session, when Assange – looking mischievously over to the WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson – announced that Hrafnsson
can confirm that I AM leaving the embassy soon, but perhaps not for the reasons the Murdoch press and Sky News are saying at the moment…
Patiño’s statement to the media
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño strongly reaffirmed Ecuador’s support for and commitment to protect Assange as a political asylee and was strongly critical of the impasse that means the situation at the embassy is still unresolved after two years.
He referred to the new extradition arrangements that would now preclude anyone not formally charged from being removed to another country and noted that some of the judges in Assange’s case at the Supreme Court had opposed the majority judgment against him on these grounds. He made it clear that he sees this change in the law as an opportunity to re-open discussions with the British government around Assange’s case but stressed the need for Britain to be willing to engage with the issue from a political as well as a legal perspective.
Moving onto Sweden’s position, Patiño noted the continued failure of Swedish prosecutors to take up the offers of legal cooperation offered by Ecuador, resulting in a complete lack of progress in the legal case and thus denying legal protection and justice to all parties. In his closing remarks, Patiño made a strong plea:
The situation must come to an end. Two years is simply too long… We once again call on the international community, particularly on journalists, to join a much needed international campaign to guarantee freedom and human rights for Julian Assange.
Assange’s statement to the media
Julian Assange began by pointing out that in nearly four years during which his freedom of movement has been restricted in various ways, he has not been charged in Sweden or Britain with any offence, nor has there been any public indictment in relation to WikiLeaks’ work in the US. While Assange has been denied his basic rights here in Europe, the US has been building a case of unprecedented scale against him and his organisation.
Asserting that “the situation is changing”, Assange then outlined how he believed Ecuador’s stand on his behalf – the fact that it went ahead and granted asylum despite considerable adverse pressure – paved the way for the change of heart that has resulted in a new extradition law here in Britain, one that has regard for due process and now requires that there are formal charges as a prerequisite before extradition will be considered and before any person is deprived of their liberty.
Assange went on to urge journalists to report responsibly on his case, to note that he has not been charged with any offence, that no women have accused him of rape:
in fact the women in Sweden explicitly deny that they have done that and in the submissions to the Supreme Court of this country, in the agreed statement of facts, the Swedish government admits to that fact.
He also urged them to recognise that
the basis under which my asylum was granted here is the ongoing US investigation into me and WikiLeaks,
to acknowledge the size and scope of the investigation led by the US Department of Justice, and that this investigation is directly focusing on WikiLeaks with the express purpose of pursuing a prosecution.
Widespread support has come from a whole range of organisations. Assange referred to 59 legal and human rights bodies that made a formal submission against the Swedish government in June, and to 54 organisations that wrote to the US Attorney General demanding that the investigation by the US Department of Justice into WikiLeaks and Assange should be dropped.
Assange gave a stark warning:
This investigation puts all publishers and all journalists at risk,
the obvious truth of which, sadly, most journalists can’t or won’t acknowledge.
Questions and answers
During the question and answer session, Julian Assange and the minister expanded on some of the issues they had touched on in their statements.
Having got the question of whether he was about to surrender to the authorities on account of his poor health [No] out of the way, Assange did when pressed, speak at more length about deprivation of fresh air and sunlight:
As you can imagine, to be detained in various ways in this country without charge for four years and now in this embassy for two years which has no outside area therefore no sunlight as a result of the obstruction that is presently in place by the United Kingdom at an admitted policing cost of more than £6.5 million, it is an environment in which any healthy person would find themselves soon enough with certain difficulties. The UN minimum standards for prisoners is one hour a day of outside exercise, and even when I was in prison, in Wandsworth in solitary confinement, that was respected.
In response to a question about the strategy planned to secure Assange’s freedom with particular reference to the role of the international community, Patiño responded:
We are hoping for a reaction soon because Julian Assange has been here for a long time, too long, waiting for safe passage. And we believe that the international community should coordinate its efforts to make sure that Julian Assange’s human rights are respected and international legislation is complied with… They are simply too important matters to leave without a decisive, a large scale and a firm response by the international community and journalists.
We will be continuing our work to find a friendly and diplomatic solution with the governments directly involved and also the international community and international bodies…
Over the coming weeks I will be looking to try to set up a meeting with the UK foreign secretary – we believe the recent reforms do create a better climate for us to reach an agreement.
Both Patiño and Assange had made reference to extradition reforms in their earlier statements, but the Telegraph was soon wilfully misreporting what had clearly been presented as an improved legal climate in which to continue trying to break the deadlock, smugly announcing in an article entitled Home Office shoots down Julian Assange’s claim about extradition law change that the Home Office had “undermined his key claim by confirming the changes would not apply in the case of Mr Assange… because they are not retrospective.”
As far as “a better climate” goes, the cabinet reshuffle that removed William Hague as Foreign Secretary and replaced him with Philip Hammond must also be seen as having possibilities, the potential for progress where none has been forthcoming to date.
Expanding on the question of strategy and whether safe passage would be pursued as a priority over the extradition question, Assange responded that
in a situation like this which has many different [players] – the United States is involved, Australia is involved, the United Kingdom is involved, Sweden is involved – and multiple different cases, of course you must pursue all these matters simultaneously.
Assange then went on to make reference to criminal complaints made previously and recently against the illegal activities of the FBI in Europe:
We have filed a criminal complaint against the FBI’s activities in Europe on European soil, illegal, illegally done, against me, the paying of bribes… cash bribes in relation to this organisation. We filed similar cases earlier on in the year in Sweden and in Germany in relation to illicit intelligence activities conducted there by the US government into trying to stop or monitor our publications or to bring about a prosecution…
On the case in Sweden
A Swedish journalist noted that the case appears to be completely deadlocked and asked “What can you do to change that?”
Assange responded first, followed by blistering closing remarks from Patiño.
It is correct there has been no movement at all in the Swedish investigation that is used as the technical excuse to obstruct for now for more than two years Ecuador’s sovereign decision to grant political asylum after formal assessment, a right that all countries have.
I have for four years asked the Swedish government to come to this country as they do in other investigations… The Ecuadorian government has offered its cooperation at this embassy for any questions the Swedish government wants to pursue. I offered that if the Swedish government would guarantee I would not be extradited to the US, then I would go to Sweden. That was rebuffed. Ecuador made similar requests…
Swedish legislation explicitly provides for the prosecutor being able to take statements outside Swedish territory… They can either do this by video conference or by travelling to another country to take these statements… So it is nothing new, it has been done before and there are legal grounds to do so.
One of the facts is that Julian Assange’s defence has asked the Swedish prosecutors to proceed in this matter.
And Ecuador’s government has also expressly offered… to facilitate such a request either by setting up a video conference or allowing for the physical presence of the authorities here in our embassy, but the end result is that these requests have not been heeded.
This is not inconsequential… Both international legislation and Swedish law establish that citizens in general must be entitled to effective legal protection. This is a fundamental principle because it enables people to know that any requested process will take place, so they can have some certainty over their future.
It is a matter of common sense and also a matter of the person who brings an accusation seeing that accusation being tried. And it is also a matter of the accused knowing if a process will take place, how it will take place; it’s about having information about any possible sentence that might be handed down. But none of this is being complied with. The question is for how long…
For how long is the Swedish judiciary going to allow this situation to continue? 5 yrs? 10 yrs? without even initiating legal proceedings by taking initial statements?
How much injustice can the judiciary inflict?
Patiño’s reference to “the person who brings an accusation seeing that accusation being tried” is highly relevant here. As Assange noted in his statement earlier, neither of the alleged victims made the accusation themselves and it was an agreed fact between the parties in the Supreme Court case that they did not. We also know that one of the women refused to sign her statement once she realised that prosecution was being considered. So, what we actually we have is a case brought by the Swedish state and also brought to a standstill by the same Swedish state. The two women may very well want the situation resolved but their views and the views of the accused will be dismissed since it is clearly in the interest of the Swedish state, which interest can only plausibly be in connection with its standing with the United States, to keep the case stalemated while ever Julian Assange remains beyond the clutches of the evil empire.
Freedom: how to achieve and keep it
Assange and Patiño are right: the resolution of this case will be greatly assisted by responsible journalism and by journalists realising that it’s a serious matter – journalistic freedom of expression and indeed all freedom of expression is in jeopardy – that should unite them in comradely solidarity with rather than in snide opposition to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. From this writer’s Britain-based perspective however, this seems like a vain hope on experience to date. Ultimately, the deadlock will be broken when people stop taking ‘no change’ for an answer: when enough of the international community in all its forms – states, organisations and individuals – insist with enough conviction that common sense, not to mention international law, justice and respect for human rights must prevail. And not just in this instance.