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Julian Assange, political martyr?

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Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is not well served by some of his supporters. When he appeared on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been holed up for the past two months to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning about allegations of sexual assault, he wisely said nothing about those claims – but some of his friends did.

George Galloway, the British member of parliament who founded the Respect Party, shares Assange’s suspicion that the whole affair was a "set-up" to get him to Sweden, from which he would be extradited to the United States to face trial for "espionage" for placing a quarter-million U.S. diplomatic cables on the internet. That was what Assange talked about on the balcony last Sunday – but Galloway could not resist the opportunity to talk about sex.

Galloway never misses a chance to put himself in the public eye, so he released a podcast on Monday saying that Assange was only guilty of "bad sexual etiquette." Thanks, George. The last thing Assange needed was for public attention to be distracted from his claim that the U.S. was plotting to seize and jail him and diverted instead to the details of the alleged sexual assaults.

Some of those details are indeed peculiar. The two Swedish women each said that she had consensual sex with Assange, but was asleep or "half-asleep" when he initiated sex again. The real issue in both cases was apparently his failure to use a condom on the second occasion, but neither woman claimed rape. Indeed, one of them threw a party in Assange’s honour the following evening, and asked him to stay in her room again afterwards.

Worried about the condom issue, they subsequently asked him to take an STD test, and went to the police when he refused. The Swedish police issued an arrest warrant for him on 20 August, 2010, but one of Stockholm’s Chief Prosecutors, Eva Finne, cancelled it the following day, telling the press: "I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape."

Ten days passed before her decision was overturned by another Chief Prosecutor, who issued a European Arrest Warrant for Assange (who was in London by then) demanding that he be sent to Sweden for questioning. The British police arrested him in February 2011, and he spent the next sixteen months on bail, fighting extradition. When his last appeal was denied in June, he jumped bail and took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy.

But why doesn’t he just answer the Swedish police’s questions? They haven’t even charged him with anything at this point. His answer is that he’d be happy to talk to them in London, but that if he goes to Sweden the United States will lay charges against him (it hasn’t done so yet) and demand his extradition. Even if he is never charged with rape or some lesser offence by Sweden, he would then face decades in an American prison.

Again, there is something peculiar about how the British and Swedish governments are playing this. Sweden has sent prosecutors abroad to interview people suspected of serious crimes before, precisely to determine whether it should lay official charges against them. This time, it won’t do that. And neither government will state that it will not let Assange be passed on to the Americans, although he says he would go to Stockholm if they did.

So is there really an American plot to whisk Assange away and lock him up for good?

There’s no question that many senior American officials would like to do exactly that. Vice-President Joe Biden called him a "high-tech terrorist," and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his action as "an attack on the international community." Great powers are always vindictive towards those who reveal their dirty secrets.

However, the official American outrage that prompted those comments was triggered by Assange’s big document dump in November 2010. The incidents in Stockholm and the Swedish request for his extradition happened before that.

There is also the question, why it would be easier for the U.S. government to extradite Assange from Sweden than from the United Kingdom, assuming that it eventually does indict him? There is a serious question as to whether U.S. laws on treason, espionage, etc. can be applied to a foreign citizen who has never lived there.

More importantly, London and Stockholm would both be deeply reluctant to hand Assange over to the tender mercies of the American justice system. They would face a huge outcry from their own citizens, most of whom think that WikiLeaks is a useful check on the untrammelled exercise of American power in the world: the domestic political price would be too great.

Indeed, the remarkable absence of a U.S. indictment and a subsequent demand for extradition after all this time suggests that Washington knows there would be no point. So there probably isn’t a U.S. plot to grab Assange.

There probably wasn’t a rape either, but that’s for the Swedish courts to decide. Assange should allow them to get on with it.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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