In the past few days, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges compared Julian Assange’s ordeal to the final act of a Greek tragedy where the hero, cursed by the fate, faces dark forces in front of which there is apparently no escape. This is certainly a metaphor which gives an idea of the dramatic moment the Wikileaks publisher is going through, with consequences affecting the whole national security journalism sector.
However, very few obstacles in Assange’s story can be related to misfortune. On the contrary, all actors involved in the smear campaign carried out against him seem to be very well organised and determined to stay in their battle station. This applies also to Lady Emma Arbuthnot, Chief Magistrate – otherwise defined Senior District Judge presiding over the initial extradition proceedings.
Assange’s lawyers asked her to step down from the case for a conflict of interest that is hard to deny. The judge is actually married to Lord James Norwich Arbuthnot, a Conservative member better known as Baron Arbuthnot of Edrom. Not really a Tory like any other, considering that he has been Member of Parliament for 28 years, Minister of State for Defence Procurement from 1995 to 1997, Conservative Chief Whip from 1997 to 2001 and Chairman of the Defence Select Committee from 2005 to 2014.
And there’s more. Baron Arbuthnot became a Life Peer in 2015, joining in the same year Lord Carlile CBE, QC and Sir John Scarlett KCMG, OBE (former head of SIS/MI6) at SC Strategy Ltd, initially as an advisor and later as a Director. While he doesn’t hold anymore this position in the company, Lord Carlile and Sir John Scarlett are still listed as active Directors. In order to understand the conflict of interest that Julian Assange’s lawyers detected, it is crucial to learn more about these two characters, very close to the Chief Magistrate’s husband.
In a 2015 report, Lord Carlile was described by the Guardian as someone “who often defends work of intelligence services“. As reported by the Canary he voted in favour of the Snooper Charter, which gave the police greater powers to hack private phones and computers. He oversaw the UK anti-terrorism laws after 9/11 since he was appointed as the Independent Reviewer for this matter. He carried out this task until 2011 and formed SC Strategy Ltd in 2012 together with Sir Scarlett.
Little is known about their joint business. The Companies House only shows a correspondence address at an accountancy firm, while apparently SG Strategy has not a website and not even a phone number available among the contact details.
Having a look to Sir Scarlett bio, his role in the preparation of Iraqi war sticks out. The way for this conflict was actually paved by his compilation of the dossier on Saddam Hussein’s WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction).
In 2015, the report “A Democratic Licence To Operate” was commissioned by former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to British Security Agencies and Sir Scarlett was part of the panel of experts who worked on the document. The idea of producing such pamphlet followed the concerns about the erosion of the exercise of individual freedom raisen after some revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Despite this, the report overall is more favourable to the police and intelligence services than to the defenders of privacy. It also supported the vision according to which the security services should retain the power to collect bulk communications data. This could be considered ironic, since the absence of proper limits for this power was one of the key concerns expressed by Snowden, whose words apparently led Nick Clegg to commission the report itself.
Coming back to the TruthDig columnist Chris Hedges, who is also a New York Times best-selling author, he highlights that the Chief Magistrate “has refused to recuse herself”, despite Assange’s legal team has requested this. The conflict of interest, according to Hedges, was pointed out also by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer.
The hope to end the unfair situation is connected to the past cases where the judge was forced to recluse herself. The Canary mentioned some of them this week. As the news outlet explains, the Observer carried out an investigation on the her husband’s business dealings with Uber. As the Canary itself reports, “the judge ruled in favour of Uber but stepped down from the case when it was shown that SC Strategy’s client the QIA had taken a stake in Uber”.
A possible decision of Lady Arbuthnot to recuse herself could be also the consequence of an increasing awareness regarding the existence of a conflict of interest. This could finally lead the public opinion to step up and ask for a fair trial for Julian Assange.