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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.