To get Julian Assange to face the Swedish allegations, America should back off

If the US promises not to extradite him from Sweden, Julian Assange may be able to put an end to the saga

For 15 days now, Julian Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The WikiLeaks founder, whose 41st birthday is today, is seeking to avoid extradition to Sweden over sexual assault allegations and has requested political asylum. Assange fears he will be held incommunicado in Sweden and ultimately handed over to authorities in the United States, who have confirmed they are continuing to investigate WikiLeaks for publishing thousands of classified government documents in 2010.

This latest bizarre episode in the Assange saga has sparked fiery arguments between supporters and critics of the divisive WikiLeaks frontman. Some have dismissed Assange’s fears as paranoia and accused him of attempting to dodge justice by seeking refuge in the embassy. Others have likened Assange’s plight to that of dissidents in countries like China, arguing that he is right to seek asylum given that there are continued calls for his extradition in America, where the vice-president has branded him a high-tech terrorist.

But what the supporters and critics do not seem to realise is that most of them share a common ground. Very few of Assange’s opponents, aside from a handful of rabid right-wing commentators, believe WikiLeaks should be prosecuted for its involvement in publishing classified documents. Even former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who has savaged Assange on several occasions, has said he would back WikiLeaks if a prosecution were to go ahead.

So the solution here seems obvious. Given that at the core of Assange’s asylum application are his fears that the US Department of Justice would like to lock him up, people on all sides of the debate should be calling for the Obama administration to give an assurance that it will not try to extradite Assange for his publishing work. Why? Because if the US government stopped pursuing Assange, he would go to Sweden. Then the prosecutors there could question him face-to-face, lodge formal charges if there is a case to be heard in court, take the thing to trial and let the judicial process run its course.

Assange has concerns that he will not get a fair trial in Sweden, in part due to what his legal team have argued were prejudicial comments made by the country’s prime minister about the case. But at least without fears of a US extradition hanging over his head, once the Swedish case was in motion Assange would have little else to worry about. Equally important, the women who made the allegations against him would get their chance to be heard. The conclusion, whatever the outcome, would bring closure to this long-drawn out affair which has now become nothing short of a complete fiasco.

It is worth recalling that when Assange was first arrested in London over the sexual assault allegations in December 2010, the US government was pleased. Then-defence secretary Robert Gates, visiting Afghanistan at the time, was asked for his reaction. He smirked and said: "sounds good to me." Gates’s off-the-cuff comment spoke volumes about how senior officials in the Obama administration had very little interest in the particulars of the Swedish case. There was a real sense at the time that they just wanted Assange to disappear, and that has not changed.

To top officials in the White House, Assange is undoubtedly seen as a threat, an agitator, a dangerous opponent they would like to see neutralised. But if the Obama administration, which has pursued a uniquely aggressive anti-whistleblower policy, was actually to launch a formal prosecution against Assange in a bid to extradite him, there would be counter-productive consequences. It would radicalise swathes of young people and be condemned by newspapers and NGOs around the world as an outrageous attack on press freedom. It would damage America’s standing in the world and fundamentally undermine Obama’s personal legacy as a president.

Let us not forget that Assange has helped expose war crimes, breaches of international law, and other questionable actions on an unparalleled scale. Obama has already lost a great deal of support due to his secret kill list, his out-of-control drone programme, and his failure to close prison camp Guantanamo Bay. An unjust prosecution against Assange would symbolise the political death knell of Obama – the man who, just four years ago, galvanised millions with his promises of hope and change.

Right now, Assange is in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy, sleeping on what one man who visited him said was an inflatable mattress. His situation currently is not far from a kind of imprisonment, and all because he fears being handed over to America. Whether or not US authorities are foolish enough to actually attempt to prosecute Assange at some point down the line, they will be happy to see him face this crisis. In a sense, by refusing to rule out an extradition attempt they are punishing him by proxy.

Almost 7000 people have signed a petition calling for Ecuador to accept Assange’s asylum request – yet regardless of what the country decides, Assange can still be arrested by the Metropolitan police the moment he sets foot outside the embassy. And even if he somehow made it to Ecuador, he would be forced to live a life in exile for years to come, shadowed constantly by a cloud of fear and restricted in the countries he could visit.

It would make far more sense for Assange's supporters to join forces with some of his critics, shifting focus by lobbying the US government directly. Whatever your opinion of Assange's personality, that does not matter in the broader scheme of things. The US government’s desire to pursue a prosecution against him is an attack on principles of press freedom, principles that any democratic society must strive to defend.

Alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning was held in conditions described by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" in a military prison for ten months. It was public indignation over his treatment that helped move him to a new prison, where he is now treated more humanely. There is no reason why a sustained and well-organised campaign, headed by some of Assange’s many high-profile backers, could not have a similar impact. An assurance from the US government that it will not seek to extradite Assange as part of its WikiLeaks investigation is the only way this saga can have a desirable ending.

Julian Assange, arriving for a hearing in the Supreme Court. Photograph: Getty Images
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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.