Parliament Square hums with Assange discontent
Thursday, 31 May 2012 – by Guy Rundle
“I went down to the demonstration / To get my fair share of abuse” (The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want)
A sunny day in Parliament Square, Big Ben shining, the remnant anti-war protest — established before all legislation that could ban it, and therefore protected — still attached to the security barriers opposite the main entrance. The late Brian Haw — he died of cancer a year or so ago — started the protest.
Haw was an irascible old f-ck, and his 10-year camp-out was not unambiguously admirable — he left his family of wife and seven children to start it — but it was prompted by an experience of utter moral depth: his father had been one of the first British soldiers into Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Whether such an insight into the abyss had anything to do with his father’s suicide — by gas — two decades later, but he was not the only one if it was. Haw’s protest began in 2001, and was prompted by revelations about the death of children — in their hundreds of thousands — in the Iraq blockade.
The Iraq and then Afghanistan wars formed the later focus of his protest. He lived off food that people bought him. When he had to make periodic court appearances, people subbed for him, so his ever-expanding, and ever-madder series of posters and displays would not be stolen. When a peace camp developed around him in solidarity, he rejected them all. Then, a year ago, he died of lung cancer.
People said that Brian Haw should have moved on, stood down, and there’s an argument for that. But nothing on his posters ever stopped being true. From the useless sanctions against Iraq — Madelaine Albright, asked about the death of up to a million children, said the price was worth it — to the pointless Talibanogenic war in Afghanistan, the cause was essentially the same.
Across the square today — your correspondent was at the May Day ‘99 protest, where the whole square was dug up to “green the streets” with turf, thus destroying a working park and marking the final collapse of Reclaim The Streets — the UK Supreme Court was about to deliver its judgment on Julian Assange and an attempt to extradite him to Sweden.
This was, it was said, the final round in the 18-month-long attempt to have Assange shipped northwards to answer questions — he has not, sing along if you know it, been charged with anything — concerning four accusations of s-x crimes by two women in … jaysus, August 2010; has it really been that long?
Assange spent five weeks in Sweden after the accusations were intially made, thrown out and then reinstated by a third prosecutor, before returning to the UK to launch the “cablegate” releases. Accounts vary as to whether the prosecutors or Assange failed to pull him in for a second round of questioning (he had already given one long police interview, contained in the full police file at swedenversusassange.com, but Swedish prosecutors then refused to speak to him by phone or in London).
The Swedish prosecutors argue that Assange doesn’t want to face the accusations. Assange and WikiLeaks point out the accusations were reinstated by a prosecutor specialising in expanding s-x crime legislation to new areas, with the two women now represented by a senior social democratic politician who had been blamed for the unworkability of new s-x crime laws brought in in 2005.
Beyond that, they also pointed out that — contrary to widespread belief — it was easier for the US to extradite Assange from Sweden than from the UK, as Sweden has a law permitting a sort of “loan-out” extradition, whereby those under charge (and hence on remand — there is no bail system in Sweden) can be removed to a second country to answer entirely other charges elsewhere. In principle, the prisoner is then returned to Sweden for the original charge. Forty years later, in this case, if the US has its way.
Assange and his growing caravanserai of lawyers has argued that he should not be extradited due to numerous problems with the European Arrest Warrant by which he was arrested — that it was issued by a prosecutor not a judge, that Sweden has a deficient justice system with regard to s-x crimes (in camera trials chiefly) and numerous other accusations.
Most of these have been shot down by lower courts, and the last remaining question was that of the responsible authority for issuing EAWs. Assange’s challenge has been one of the most relentless against the EAW — an instrument as important to the creation of a neoliberal EU superstate as the euro — because it essentially turns the EU into one legal authority, unanchored to an electorate.
For that reason, the chances that the seven-justice panel of the Supreme Court would overturn the warrant were always slim; that two justices were willing to throw a spanner into the works was a victory of sorts, but you know, like a Carlton one, it doesn’t count. The beyond-last-chance appeal has, I presume, been explained by the legal bods, and there is a European Court of Human Rights case possible. But none of this stops the extradition in its tracks. Still, it’s the first time that the UK Supreme Court has permitted an appeal-challenge to one of its own rulings (the Law Lord, the body it replaced, permitted this), so goddamit, Assange can’t help making history.
Nevertheless, the mood outside Parliament Square was sombre as people began to pour out of the heavy doors — despite the announcement minutes earlier, that Andy Coulson had been arrested by Scottish police for perjury, arising from his testimony in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial (readers who want to check the only Australian outlet to say that this would be the crucial moment arising from hacking revelations should check out — oh, this one, and my reports on the matter).
John Pilger, Gavin McFadyen, chief Assange lawyer (Ms) Gareth Pierce and others started to do vox pops — Assange himself hadn’t made the brief hearing, caught in traffic — and crews began to interview the Assange supporters, a somewhat diminished contingent. Veteran Assange-coverers nodded wearily to each other, and everyone was trying to find out where Andy Coulson was (answer: in a police car on the M1, heading north … wonder if they played I Spy?).Coulson’s perjury charge is serious as f-ck, and represents a new stage in the conflict between the state and Murdochia. Firstly, it has nothing to do with an assault on the press per se — Coulson is accused of flat-out lying during Sheridan’s trial (the former Scottish Socialist Party leader was himself being tried for perjury after he had won a libel case against a News of the World story alleging he visited swingers’ clubs (yeah that’s right, Glasgow swingers’ clubs, mnurgggghhh). Sheridan knew he was going down (on the testimony of other SSP members, ah solidarity), but he also knew that Coulson was in a corner.
When Sheridan’s trial occurred, News was still sticking to its “rogue royal reporter” defence — so to acknowledge that Sheridan had been bugged and fugged by their stringer “detectives” would have seen the whole defence unravel. Coulson — at that stage working for PM David Cameron, and having his legal fees paid by News International — was questioned by Sheridan, who was representing himself. The Murdoch loyalist made his denials through clenched teeth, staring directly at Sheridan — famous for starting the anti-poll tax movement which eventually unseated Thatcher — with undiluted hatred.
Sheridan got three years. Coulson is accused of perjury in a perjury trial. If found guilty, hopefully he won’t get much change out of eight, but we’ll see.
Assange clearly believes that, should Sweden get their hands on him, he won’t see daylight again — the Swedes will handball him to the US, where a grand jury has been empanelled for a year now, hearing evidence on various leaks possibly associated with the cablegate release. His most recent media appearances have had an elegiac tone. Should that occur, he will be incarcerated for the same things newspaper editors do: publishing confidential documents leaked to him by a source. Yet both The Guardian and The New York Times have abandoned Assange, based on various conflicts with him — a stance they may well live to regret.
Whatever one thinks of the accusations against him in Sweden — and it has to be a tendentious set of s-x crimes accusations indeed for a Swedish prosecutor (in this case Eva Finne, Stockholm prosecutor) to throw them out — that the process is in parallel with a US potential mega-indictment should be a cause of major concern to all Assange’s fellow Australians. Crucially, it’s a question of what those so disposed can do for him. If there’s one area where the government should be piling in hard, it is in this grey area of Swedish law — “extradition-by-loan”.
Governments are by no means required to acquiesce to every whacky/sinister loophole that applies to their citizens in another jurisdiction. The Australian government should demand Assange not be “loaned” to the US, while he is being held incommunicado on remand (or simply for questioning) in a Swedish prison, and people should demand the government demand it. Whether Assange can pull off his bid to be elected to the Senate remains to be seen — the polling is strong — but should he do so, the ramifications of a fast-bucks extradition will become immense.
So on we go. Not much more than five years ago, Assange worked out a way to challenge the power structures of the world by combining separate features of whistleblowing and hacking — secure encryption and reliable anonymity, combined with mass information release, and an “infectiously courageous” principled stand by those facilitating the leaking. He has succeeded beyond anyone’s reasonable expectations.
In another corner of the square, Brian Haw had none of Assange’s plans — just a few placards, and a message from the midnight of the century about the consequences of not standing up. You will make no difference but you must do it anyway, Ghandi said, less than fully correct. Sometimes you push the pillars and make the temple fall, and sometimes you stand there with a poster feeling like a dick. But if you never take up the challenge, you end up like Andy Coulson, f-cked and far from home, having given your life so Tony Blair could bless Rupert’s child on the banks of the Jordan.
“If you try some time you just might find, you get what you need.”