Diana Wallis MEP writes: Turning Julian Assange from poacher to game keeper

As Julian Assange reappears in court this week and as the Wikileaks saga continues to play out in the national media I am tempted to ask if Julian Assange is the new ‘Catch me if you can’ figure of the internet. Not the iconic image of imposter Frank Abnagale Jnr as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in a pilot’s uniform striding through the airport with glamorous air hostesses in the film, but a correspondingly, bright, articulate and believable Robin Hood of the internet. In short: an attractive rogue with a frighteningly forensic mind.

The ending could be similar: finally captured by his antagonists having maybe taken a step too far, but with them having a sneaking admiration for him. One only has to look at the previous legal case in which Assange was involved, in Australia, where he walked free after years of prosecution attempts to obtain a serious conviction against him. In that case the judges admitted that all his hacking activities up until then amounted to nothing more than ‘an intelligent inquisitiveness’!

It is clear that Assange has amazing ability and knowledge that could be better harnessed by government on behalf of the wider community. Of course, he has now gone further and seems to have a belief that everyone has a right to know everything; a mission for total transparency. And like all difficult and complex characters he has his detractors. If you are going to crusade for transparency you must be transparent yourself – his former partner says this was not the case and has now set up a different operational model under the name Open Leaks.

It is undoubtedly useful to have transparency campaigners who push the boundaries and by such activities ensure that institutions and governments are forced to be more transparent. However what mandate do those campaigners have to make the sensitive decisions about what is disclosed and even more than that, about how material is edited or redacted before public presentation?

To date, in the real world, we have had disclosure made by democratically elected politicians or by officials who are answerable to them. The whole exercise is conducted against a framework of legal rights and obligations, balancing various interests against an increasing body of substantive law – in most countries on the one hand freedom of information and on the other hand personal data protection and basis human rights to reputation and family/privacy and of course national security. Likewise within this legal framework disclosures are also made by investigative journalists who also normally operate within a code of professional ethics.

Mr. Assange had or has no such legal or ethical underpinning that one can point to or rely upon. Rather we have been in the hands of his undoubted intelligence and crusading zeal for freedom of information and the operation of the internet as a free space.

Is this what we want? Indeed did anyone actually consult us? Of course, the internet challenges all our assumptions about governance, but did we really sign up to it becoming the Wild West? Even if we did surely the danger is that now the international posse of sheriffs is about to thunder in with a clampdown that maybe in no-ones interest?

Many in the European Parliament will automatically, and rightly, champion Assange’s case. He is a champion of transparency; an issue which the European Parliament has likewise championed above all vis a vis the other EU institutions. But take care what you wish for: as stated above transparency campaigners have to come with clean hands, to be fully transparent themselves.

That means opening up all types of information and documentation, electronic and real. Let’s think about it what that might mean in a parliament: full minutes of political group meetings, meetings with officials and lobbyists and maybe even with constituents when they have the character of a lobby (and indeed even when they don’t as Vince Cable recently found to his cost!). In theory, the only confidential space that is left relates to third party sensitive commercial information and personal or family data.

The reality is that we all need space to think in which to discuss and formulate ideas and views and not all of that is best served by taking place in public. Interestingly the EP has just won for itself in the new post-Lisbon world of greater powers, the right to access to ‘confidential’ secret and top secret documents in connection with international agreements and negotiations. It was a hard fought prize for a democratically directly elected international institution which has gradually achieved a more open manner of doing international business, moving away from the natural secretiveness of inter-governmentalism characterised by old style diplomacy. However the modalities of MEPs having access to ‘confidential’ documents have yet to be clarified and doubtless the process may become even harder in the backlash from Wiki leaks. Just how many European governments will be happy to see ‘confidential’ documents in the hands of campaigning parliamentarians? It will be an interesting test. Especially now we have a Brussels Leaks outfit; which however well intentioned, we do not know who is behind it and there is indeed some irony that you to set up a secret society to achieve open government.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the internet is a virtual mirror of the real world and just as real borders no longer prevent law enforcement in the real world, as Mr Assange has found, so the internet is no different. Mr Assange might conceivably turn out to be an asset. Having cornered him let’s hope his prosecutors consider like the FBI in ‘Catch me if you can’ if they can turn his expertise for the good of us all and for greater transparency.

Diana Wallis is a Liberal Democrat MEP for Yorkshire & the Humber and a Vice President of the European Parliament

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11 Comments

  • Nicola Weaver 8th Feb '11 - 12:43pm

    Surely, here’s the bottom line: would he be guaranteed a fair trial outside the UK?

    Is there reasonable doubt that he WOULDN’T?

    Of course there is.

    Thus, he shouldn’t be extradited.

    FYI, all the Wikileaks videos are on this hub:
    http://wikileaks.videohq.tv

  • Bizarre article. Julian Assange is up for extradition on charges similar to rape or sexual assault so if, “Many in the European Parliament will automatically, and rightly, champion Assange’s case.” what exactly are they championing? The rights of sex criminals not to be deported?

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Feb '11 - 7:41pm

    The way Assange’s supporters go on, one would think the Swedish prosecutors wanted to put him on trial for his Wikileaks activities. The fact that two women have made allegations of serious sexual assaults appears to count for precisely nothing.

    The implication seems to be that Assange ought to evade the normal judicial process simply because he does a mighty good job of embarrassing the US and British governments. The whole thing stinks.

    Anybody who genuinely cares about justice should want the truth about this case to come out – and the best way for that to happen would be for Assange to cooperate fully with the Swedish inquiry.

  • Did Diana Wallis run over your dog Hywel? You seem to have a helluva downer on the poor woman…

  • Craig – I’m sure Diana’s skills are used to the full by our group in the European Parliament.

  • I see no Iceberg 9th Feb '11 - 12:48am

    I see Hywel is unaware the concept of pesumption of innocence.
    But then anyone who calls Assange a “sex criminal” after this farcical Legal shambles and bullying by an embarrassed and furious U.S., is as gullible as those who think it’s a mere co-incidence this kangaroo court has sprung up as Wikileaks rocked the U.S. State Department to it’s core.

    For those who want to know about the real Legal state of play here is the latest.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/feb/08/julian-assange-extradition-hearing-texts
    Julian Assange’s Swedish lawyer was shown scores of text messages sent by the two women who accuse him of rape and sexual assault, in which they speak of “revenge” and extracting money from him, an extradition hearing was told.

    Björn Hurtig, who represents the WikiLeaks founder in Sweden, told Belmarsh magistrates court that he had been shown “about 100” messages sent between the women and their friends while supervised by a Swedish police officer, but had not been permitted to make notes or share the contents with his client.

    “I consider this to be contrary to the rules of a fair trial,” he said. A number of the messages “go against what the claimants have said”, he told the court.

    And if the British State does decide to throw Assange to the wolves for daring to leak American secrets then any further bloviating about “openness” and “transparency” by the coalition will be treated with utter contempt.

  • Ed The Snapper 9th Feb '11 - 8:54am

    I think it is hilarious that anyone puts forward the view that the authorities see Julian Assange as some kind of romantic, Robin Hood figure. I have no doubt that the governments of some countries want to kill him and who knows what secretive activities they are planning against him. Wikileaks is already doing a good job of bringing to light that which unscupulous authorities want to keep hidden. There is no need to make Wikileaks “official” or to turn it into a “gamekeeper”. As for Julian Assange as a sexual criminal. From what I have now heard about the charges against him, I wonder if he is merely sexually reckless rather than sexually violent.

  • I’m well aware of the concept of the presumption of innocence and have some certificates to that effect. It is a concept recognised in both UK and Swedish law. That concept is not something which is challenged by the consideration of whether someone should be extradited.

    As a general point neither the US state dept Human Rights reports nor Amnesty International’s Country reports raise significant concerns about Swedish judicial process being an unfair process. Sweden is a signatory to the ECHR and averages less than one adverse judgement with regard to fair trial rights a year over the last 40+ years.

    Detailed extradition law isn’t something I know a lot about, but my impression on reading the evidence of Bjorn Hurtig was that he was raising material relevant to the case. However that is material which goes to the credibility of the witness(es) involved and is something that should properly be tested at trial, it certainly can’t be tested without evidence from the witness involved. The fact that there is a victim who has made contradictory statements is a matter which weakens the case, it doesn’t make a trial in itself, an unfair one. If it did then there would be hundreds of trials in the UK every day which were unfair.

    What access Assange’s defence team should have to that information is a matter for Swedish disclosure law (on which I plead total ignorance!). However, if the intent is to withhold potentially relevant material (which would render a trial unfair) it strikes me that showing it to his defence lawyer is a slightly odd way of doing that!

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th Feb '11 - 7:58pm

    “I see no Iceberg” – Assuming we can believe Hurtig’s claims (not exactly a gimme – see below), what exactly is so suspicious about a woman harbouring thoughts of “revenge” against a man she claims has raped her? What exactly do you expect her to do – send him a Valentine’s card??

    Don’t suppose you lingered too long over the following bit of the Guardian article :-

    “[Hurtig] admitted that Swedish prosecutors had tried to interview his client before he left the country, contradicting earlier claims by Assange’s legal team and his own witness statement. Hurtig told the extradition hearing that he had been wrong to assert that the prosecutor Marianne Ny had made no active attempt to interview Assange…”

    I can’t help thinking that what we’re witnessing here is an obscene conflation of two entirely unrelated sets of events (Assange’s web activities, and the alleged rape of two women) by a bunch of misguided people who seem to think that Assange should be granted immunity from crmiinal investigaton simply because he’s some sort of shifty looking poster boy for the anti-establishment. Count me out.

    Far from being the victim of “bullying by an embarrassed and furious U.S”, Assange’s evil persecutors are – according to reports – two women who were his supporters and friends. I don’t know whether Assange is guilty and neither do you – but I do think it’s extremely important that we find out, and how can we do that if Assange is allowed to evade questioning?

    One more observation: I think most people would regard Sweden as one of the more civilised, enlightened and liberal countries in the world, rather than an American puppet state with “kangaroo courts” as you see it.

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