Why Assange lost

Explaining the extradition decision.

On 24 February 2011, the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court ordered the extradition of Julian Assange to Sweden under a European Arrest Warrant.

This extradition order does not necessarily mean, of course, that he will be extradited, still less that he will be charged, tried, or convicted. Assange may win an appeal of the extradition order, or Sweden may decide either not to continue or to interview him while he remains in England. However, unless some such external event intervenes, Assange will be shortly extradited to Sweden to be questioned about an allegation of rape, two allegations of sexual molestation, and an allegation of unlawful coercion.

There can be no doubt that these allegations are serious: far more serious than they have been represented by many internet commentators. The EAW for the arrest of Assange sets out the allegations:

Unlawful coercion

On 13-14 August 2010, in home of the injured party [A] in Stockholm, Assange, by using violence, forced the injured party to endure his restricting her freedom of movement. The violence consisted in a firm hold of the injured party's arms and a forceful spreading of her legs while lying on top of her and with his body weight preventing her from moving or shifting.

Sexual molestation (1)

On 13-14 August 2010, in home of the injured party [A] in Stockholm, Assange deliberately molested the injured party by acting in a manner designed to violate her sexual integrity. Assange, who was aware that it was the expressed wish of the injured party and a prerequisite of sexual intercourse that a condom be used, consummated sexual intercourse with her without her knowledge.

Sexual molestation (2)

On 18 August 2010 or on any of the days before or after that date, in the home of the injured party [A] in Stockholm, Assange deliberately molested the injured party by acting in a manner designed to violate her sexual integrity; that is, lying next to her and pressing his naked, erect penis to her body.

Rape

On 17 August 2010, in the home of the injured party [B], Assange deliberately consummated sexual intercourse with her by improperly exploiting that she, due to sleep, was in a helpless state. It is an aggravating circumstance that Assange, who was aware that it was the expressed wish of the injured party and a prerequisite of sexual intercourse that a condom be used, still consummated unprotected sexual intercourse with her. The sexual act was designed to violate the injured party's integrity.

It is crucial to note that these are allegations. There have been no charges. There certainly has been no documentary or oral evidence published to support these allegations, and nor have these allegations been tested by cross-examination. Assange must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, the presumption of innocence does not mean such serious allegations should never be answered.

The main reason for the court ordering extradition was simply that a valid European Arrest Warrant (EAW) had been issued. If a valid EAW is correctly served on the correct person then, unless it can be shown that it is disproportionate, an abuse of process, or otherwise a violation of the defendant's human rights, a United Kingdom court is bound to order extradition, just as a Swedish court would be bound to order the extradition of a person requested by the UK government under an EAW.

It was contended by Assange's UK lawyers that it was not a valid EAW, for it had not been issued by a competent authority. This was always going to be a difficult submission, as the EAW had already been certified by the United Kingdom's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). But even if there was still doubt on this, Assange's own expert witnesses from Sweden confirmed that it had been validly issued. Once this fundamental question had been decided then it would have been exceptional had the EAW been refused on any other grounds.

It was submitted that the EAW had been issued too early in the criminal process: that it should not be used to aid an investigation but rather it should only be in respect of a formal charge. This was a stronger point for the Assange team to raise, and offers perhaps his best hope of a successful appeal. However, the court had the evidence of the Swedish prosecutor that Assange was not being sought to assist with inquiries but for the purpose of conducting criminal proceedings. The EAW was issued because "there was substantial and probable cause to accuse Julian Assange of the offences". In response to this, Assange relied on the evidence of two Swedish legal experts. However, their evidence on this and other key points was to be fatally undermined by Assange's own Swedish lawyer, Bjorn Hurtig.

In Hurtig's "proof" (or prepared) witness statement, he had said "astonishingly [the prosecutor] made no effort to interview [Assange] on the rape charge to get his side of the story" whilst Assange was still in Sweden. This was a highly important statement, but it was completely untrue. Indeed, in the sort of criticism rarely made by an English judge, it was held that Hurtig had deliberately sought to mislead the court on this point. The effect of this was catastrophic for the Assange case: not only did it discredit Hurtig, but the two key legal experts relied upon by Assange had wrongly based their expert evidence that the EAW should not have been issued on Hurtig's false claim.

By seeking to attack the credibility of the Swedish prosecutor, it appeared that Hurtig had provided evidence which, if retracted or disproved, had the effect of undermining any serious submission that the prosecutor had acted disproportionately in seeking Assange's extradition under an EAW. As District Judge Riddle concluded, it would have been a reasonable assumption for the prosecutor to make that Assange was deliberately avoiding interrogation.

Once the EAW was held to be valid, and any evidence as to disproportionality undermined by Assange's own Swedish witness, then the court had no difficulty in dealing with the many other points raised. Sweden is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights and so Assange can rely on any engaged Convention rights once extradited; the Swedish court is better placed than the London court to deal with any alleged abuses of process; the legal arguments before the Swedish court will be in public, even if the Swedish courts take witness evidence regarding sexual offences and rape in private; and the offences alleged were also offences in UK law (which, of course, no serious person could doubt).

The judgment ordering extradition is careful to emphasise that the defence case had been thorough and meticulous. The skeleton argument of Assange's UK lawyers alone is some 74 pages, consisting of 181 paragraphs. Two senior Swedish legal experts were even brought over to provide evidence in support of the defence. It is difficult to see what further submissions could have been made on behalf of Assange.

However, the defence did not succeed. And, unless the defence prevails at appeal, or some extraneous event occurs, Assange will be extradited to face questioning by the Swedish prosecutor over these undeniably serious allegations. He may then be charged and tried. That should not be prejudged. Assange is entitled to the benefit of due process.

But the simple fact is that Assange is being extradited because a valid EAW was issued and served for serious alleged offences, and that there was nothing in the particular circumstances of this case to prevent the EAW being implemented.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle