Julian Assange arrest: why both sides are wrong

The pursuit of Assange may be politically motivated but don’t dismiss the charges so quickly.

The pursuit of Assange may be politically motivated but don’t dismiss the charges so quickly.

The arrest of the WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange has prompted two distinct reactions. Some, such as the Telegraph's Will Heaven, point out that the rape charges are entirely unrelated to the release of the US embassy cables. Others, such as a group that describes itself as "Justice for Assange", echo his lawyer Mark Stephens's claim that his client is the victim of an international "smear campaign".

In fact, these two positions are not as incompatible as they appear. There is no doubt that Assange's opponents have exploited the allegations against him for political gain. The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, did little to dispel this suspicion when he said of the arrest: "I hadn't heard that, but that sounds like good news to me."

It is also doubtful that Sweden would have pursued an average alleged rapist with such persistence. As Stephens rightly points out: "It is highly irregular and unusual for the Swedish authorities to issue [an Interpol] red notice in the teeth of the undisputed fact that Mr Assange has agreed to meet voluntarily to answer the prosecutor's questions."

Yet all of the above has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of the rape allegations. For all their protestations, none of Assange's acolytes knows what happened on the night of 14 August in Stockholm. Stephens has summed up the issue as a "dispute over consensual but unprotected sex". For good measure, Claes Borgstrom, who represents both of Assange's accusers, has argued: "This is a redress for my clients, I have to say, because they have been dragged through the mud on the internet, for having made things up or intending to frame Assange . . . There is not an ounce of truth in all this about Pentagon, or the CIA, or smear campaigns, nothing like it."

There is now no reason why the allegations should not be put before a court of law. Should the charges be trumped up, as Assange's lawyers suggest, they will not bear legal scrutiny. What does he have to fear? He should take this opportunity to clear his name.

UPDATE: Sweden does not, as I incorrectly suggested, have a jury system. The line in question has been amended.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How will Labour handle the Trident vote?

Shadow cabinet ministers have been promised a free vote and dismiss suggestions that the party should abstain. 

At some point this year MPs will vote on whether Trident should be renewed. It is politics, rather than policy, that will likely determine the timing. With Labour more divided on the nuclear question than any other, the Tories aim to inflict maximum damage on the opposition. Some want an early vote in order to wreak havoc ahead of the May elections, while others suggest waiting until autumn in the hope that the unilateralist Jeremy Corbyn may have changed party policy by then.  

Urged at PMQs by Conservative defence select committee chair Julian Lewis to "do the statesmanlike thing" and hold the vote "as soon as possible", Cameron replied: "We should have the vote when we need to have the vote and that is exactly what we will do" - a reply that does little to settle the matter. 

As I've reported before, frontbenchers have been privately assured by Corbyn that they and other Labour MPs will have a free vote on the issue. Just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members support unilateral disarmament, with Tom Watson, Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle among those committed to Trident renewal. But interviewed on the Today programme yesterday, after her gruelling PLP appearance, Emily Thornberry suggested that Labour may advise MPs to abstain. Noting that there was no legal requirement for the Commons to vote on the decision (and that MPs did so in 2007), she denounced the Tories for "playing games". But the possibility that Labour could ignore the vote was described to me by one shadow cabinet member as "madness". He warned that Labour would appear entirely unfit to govern if it abstained on a matter of national security. 

But with Trident renewal a fait accompli, owing to the Conservatives' majority, the real battle is to determine Labour's stance at the next election. Sources on both sides are doubtful that Corbyn will have the support required to change policy at the party conference, with the trade unions, including the pro-Trident Unite and GMB, holding 50 per cent of the vote. And Trident supporters also speak of their success against the left in constituency delegate elections. One described the Corbyn-aligned Momentum as a "clickocracy" that ultimately failed to turn out when required. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.