Rebel, public nuisance and dreamer
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Barbara Gunnell
Download the complete article PDF
Barbara Gunnell’s biography and other articles by this writer
BELMARSH Magistrates’ Court sits behind a tall steel-picket fence in the precinct of a high-security prison in the unlovely south-east London suburb of Woolwich. On a drab Friday in February, journalists from several continents arrived there to hear the closing statements in the case of Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny, Swedish Prosecution Authority, Sweden v Julian Paul Assange. They were all used to the drill now, and queued for security, removed mobile phones from bags, took off coats and shoes for scanning – and derived some satisfaction from watching a handful of celebrities and expensively shod barristers having to do likewise.
You would have concluded that the defendant was a dangerous terrorist. In the eyes of several high-ranking American politicians, he was. In fact, this was the third day of a straightforward, if rather technical, hearing on the validity of a European Arrest Warrant. The case had been relocated from Central London because of the large number of satellite trucks and broadcasting teams that had to be accommodated near the court. A two-day hearing had been scheduled to decide whether Julian Assange, Australian founder of the WikiLeaks organisation and responsible for the biggest leaks of classified information in history, should be extradited to Sweden to answer charges of sexual assault and rape.
The case, due to finish on 8 February, had gone into a third day – to the intense and evident irritation of Clare Montgomery, QC, acting for the Swedish state. Assange’s defence counsel, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, Australian-born and the best known human rights lawyer in Britain, had attended in considerable detail to each of a long list of objections to the arrest warrant. Montgomery, who shares chambers with Cherie Booth (the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair), made it clear she found his objections trifling. For Montgomery, a former world-class fencer and an expert in extradition, this might be a standard strategy. In 1998 she had successfully defended Augusto Pinochet from extradition to Spain, where he faced charges of genocide, arguing that if the former dictator of Chile (who had done a deal for immunity in his home country) were removed to Spain for prosecution it would encourage future tyrants to stay in power.
AS THE BELMARSH court reconvened for the two barristers to sum up, the Assange team raised a new objection to extradition. The night before, the Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, had made an unexpected intervention, accusing Assange and his legal representatives of making remarks that were ‘condescending and damaging to Sweden’ and, in particular, disrespectful of the rights of Swedish women. Robertson argued that a political intervention of this kind further damaged Assange’s chance of a fair trial and had vilified him in Sweden as ‘an enemy of the people’. Montgomery countered that it was the Assange legal team’s intemperate out-of-court public remarks that had provoked the Swedish Prime Minister. Judge Howard Riddle, who Assange’s Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson labelled ‘a hostile judge’, appeared to agree and refused Team Assange’s request for time to get the remarks properly translated. As a result, we never learned whether Prime Minister Reinfeldt specifically referred, as Robertson did, to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
If he didn’t already know the work, Julian Assange might have been disconcerted to discover that Ibsen’s play, about a small town in Norway, serves as a short synopsis of his own recent troubles. The nineteenth-century drama involves a whistleblower, a newspaper, and political and business interests determined to retain their power and wealth. The morally driven Dr Stockmann has obtained scientific evidence that an epidemic of sickness is caused by polluted water at the town’s public baths. He intends to publish details in the local paper and thus force the baths to close. But the spa also brings the town jobs and wealth. Stockmann is betrayed, first by the mayor, then by the newspaper and finally by the capricious public he has championed. They prefer to stick with the devils they know than with the troublemaker whose campaign threatens their livelihoods. ‘Yes, yes! He is an enemy of the people! He hates his country! He hates his own people!’ they shout as they desert him.
Watching the 11 February hearing come to a ragged and bad-tempered close from a glass enclosure in Court 3, Assange might well have felt the tide of public opinion similarly turning against him. Whatever Judge Riddle decided, Assange would be remaining under ‘mansion arrest’ in rural Norfolk, possibly for months. Both sides had indicated that if the verdict on the validity of the arrest warrant went against them, they would appeal. Two weeks later, when the caravan returned to Belmarsh to hear the decision, Assange looked defeated even before the decision came. Riddle ruled that Assange could be extradited under the warrant. His team duly put in their appeal.
The case will go to the High Court. Assange might or might not have to go to Sweden. He might or might not face charges of rape and assault there. His worst fears, that he could be extradited from either country to the United States and face lengthy imprisonment or even execution, could even be realised. But the immediate horror for Assange must have been the painstakingly slow legal process. A man used over many years to having ‘no fixed abode’, to answering and explaining to no one and living out of a backpack, is under house arrest, tagged electronically until a legal argument about the validity of European Arrest Warrants is resolved.
THE BELMARSH HEARINGS revealed, but left unresolved and untested, graphic details of the testimonies of Julian Assange’s two accusers taken from leaked police evidence, to which he cannot legally respond. With no resolution in sight and no official charges yet laid, everybody but Assange was now entitled to debate, or at least have a view on, his morals, behaviour and character. Books have been written and published, commentators have opined, documentaries made and broadcast: Assange has become the most extensively discussed, reported, blogged and tweeted-about man in history.
It is one of the many tensions between secrecy and openness in the WikiLeaks story that a major objection to extradition from the Assange legal team has been that rape cases in Sweden are usually heard in secret, with press and public excluded – thus, they argue, compromising Assange’s right to a fair hearing. And yet, almost every detail of the events in Stockholm in August 2010 that led to two women making complaints to the police has now been made public, first as police evidence leaked to journalists and then, in the magistrate’s court, as part of the legal argument over the validity of the arrest warrant. Everyone with any interest or curiosity in the case will have heard the accusers’ versions of events, and most will have come to a firm opinion on what happened in Stockholm.
The exchanges between Claire Montgomery and Geoffrey Robertson on the alleged rape reveal the irreconcilable and subjective viewpoints of the case Assange will have to answer to if he goes to Sweden. In Judge Riddle’s court, the allegations of the two women, which have been widely reported, were not put forward as evidence for examination or testing. The two barristers were concerned only with interpreting whether the women’s complaints amounted to a definition of rape that would hold in both countries.
In the legal arguments of Robertson and Montgomery, the claims of the Swedish women became the same story, of the same events, told twice over with totally different emphases. ‘He pinned her down with his body weight,’ said Montgomery. ‘That is what is usually described as the missionary position,’ countered Robertson. ‘She was asleep,’ Montgomery said. ‘Ms A claimed to be half asleep. That is also half awake,’ was Robertson’s version. ‘Sexual encounters have their ebbs and flows. What may be unwanted one minute can with further empathy become desired,’ he suggested.
‘In popular language, that’s violence,’ said Montgomery. ‘No doubt rough consensual sex is something on which he [Robertson] is able to give some useful information to the court,’ she concluded, eliciting a gasp from the assembled journalists.
Assange, whose version of events we have yet to hear, sat still in the dock, occasionally leaning forward to better catch a mumbled phrase from Robertson. The two benches of the public gallery, able to hold twenty-five to thirty people, over several days accommodated Assange’s celebrity supporters – the veteran left-wing politician Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, Jemima Khan, John Pilger – and campaigners and colleagues from WikiLeaks. Assange acknowledged them as he entered court.
Outside, members of Anonymous, an anarchist group that is very publicly supporting Assange and WikiLeaks, waited beyond the perimeter fence, wearing sinister Guy Fawkes masks. I had wondered what they thought they had in common with the Roman Catholic plotter who attempted to blow up the English parliament in 1605, but the masks were in fact replicating the face on the cover of a five-part cult graphic novel, V for Vendetta, set in a dystopian fascist future.