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29 June 2012

Julian Assange is not leaving the Ecuadorian Embassy any time soon

The wikileaker delivered a statement pushing his case not to face allegations of rape in Sweden.

By Alex Hern

Julian Assange just trolled the world’s media. After announcing that he would be making a statement on the steps of the Ecuadorian embassy, where he has been in self-imposed confinement for the last two weeks, speculation began to mount as to whether he would be leaving the embassy for good.

So tortured has the whole saga become that there was even discussion about what the legal status of the embassy’s steps were. Are they Ecuadorian land, in which case he would be able to return to the embassy after, or are they technically British, which would leave him open to re-arrest.

In the end, it didn’t matter. What we got was a statement, with no chance for follow-up questions, from Susan Benn, one of the board members of the Julian Assange Defence Fund, which largely reiterated what we already know.

The statement opened by revealing that the Met asked Assange to report to Belgravia police station at 11:30 this morning, and that although he decided not to obey the request, “this should not be considered disrespect”. What followed was largely the spreading of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The first half of the statement focused on the moves made against Assange in the United States, as well as the horrendous treatment meted out to Private Manning, the alleged source for Wikileaks’ famous dump of diplomatic cables. Although much of what was said, regarding efforts to indict him, the convening of a grand jury, and the desire to charge him with conspiracy to commit espionage, is true – if perhaps overstated – it is also largely irrelevent to the question of whether Assange should be extradited to Sweden to face allegations of rape.

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The only tenuous link to the actual matter at hand was that “informal talks between the US and Sweden have been conducted”. One would be surprised if they had not, and the existence of “talks” does not reveal anything about their content. Indeed, it would be unlikely if the US had also not had “informal talks” with Ecuador by now, although Assange will be hoping Ecuador’s response is curt.

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Benn did turn to the Swedish allegations, and although she avoided one common line from Assange’s supporters – that of minimising his alleged crimes altogether – there were other exaggerations and misstatements. Benn characterised the last ten days spent in Wandsworth Prison as “solitary confinement”, as well as claiming that he has spent the 500+ days he’s been avoiding extradition to Sweden as “virtual house arrest” (he was under curfew to be home at 10pm for most of that time, which is rather different from house arrest).

There were also pointed references to the fact that Assange has yet to be charged – which is true, because charging normally comes after arrest – as well as various other facts which are irrelevent to the matter at hand, such as whether or not he left Sweden freely, and whether Swedish prosecutors had refused an offer to interview him in London.

The key defence of his actions was buried deep under all of this: He cannot go to Sweden, he claims, because if the US begins the extradition process while there he will be held on remand, which would prevent him seeking asylum. 

It is a rather distasteful defence. He is arguing that he shouldn’t face trial over his alleged crimes, because a possible outcome of doing so is that further unjust wrongs may be perpetrated upon him. As an ethical dilemma, there are debates to be made about the desirable approach; but the one thing which is clear is that the person who gets to decide the final course of action should not be Julian Assange. For now, he remains in the embassy, hoping that the Ecuadorian government will grant him asylum. If they do, he’s got a whole other set of problems.

Updated: Susan Benn was wrongly called a lawyer. She is a board member of the Julian Assange Defence Fund. She likely meant to refer to Assange’s time in prison, not the embassy, when she spoke of solitary confinement.