In Evelyn Waugh’s “Handful of Dust”, the fortunate owner of a fantastic Gothic English country pile, Tony Last, has an idyllic life which is gradually brought crashing down by a series of unfortunate events including betrayal by his wife. He ends the book trapped as a prisoner in the Brazilian jungle – the plaything of an insane tribal chief – having to continually read Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” to the inhabitants.
I thought of this in connection with Julian Assange. He was born in the wonderful town of Townsville in Queensland, Australia (above), a place of sun, sea and sugar beet. By an oddly circuitous route, he has ended up surrounded by Harrod’s hampers in a room in Knightsbridge. He may not enjoy walks in the park but he can eat hand cut piccalilli on demerera shortbreads. There is a great deal of the ridiculous – and tragic – in the whole episode. The similarity with “Handful of Dust” breaks down in that the book’s main character, Tony Last, did not do anything to bring about his ridiculous situation. That cannot be said for Julian Assange.
The UN working group report issued yesterday was interesting. How can someone be described as being “arbitrarily detained” when they themselves flee bail and enter a building and are free to leave it? But that’s just my layman’s view.
I turn to Joshua Rozenberg for a legal-minded opinion:
…it fell to the fifth member of the group, Vladimir Tochilovsky, to point out the flaw in the majority’s reasoning.
They had assumed that Assange had been “detained in the embassy of Ecuador by the authorities of the United Kingdom,” the Ukrainian lawyer wrote. In fact, the Wikileaks founder had fled bail in June 2012 and used the embassy “as a safe haven to evade arrest”. Fugitives often do that, Tochilovsky pointed out. But “premises of self-confinement cannot be considered places of detention for the purposes of the mandate of the working group”.
That is so self-evidently true that it seems hard to believe the majority could have been persuaded otherwise. Assange has always been free to leave the embassy at any time.
Of course, he knew he would be arrested for breach of his bail conditions. Of course, he knew he would face extradition to Sweden. Of course, he knew that he might face extradition to the United States once proceedings in Sweden were at an end. But that does not mean he was detained, and still less that his detention was of an arbitrary character.
Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael said:
Liberal Democrats have always said Julian Assange should return to Sweden to face the allegations against him in a fair trial. The UK has a legal obligation to fulfil a European Arrest Warrant to extradite Mr Assange and it is vital that the Government sees this through.
Liberal Democrat peer, Ken MacDonald QC, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, described the situation “beyond parody” and continued:
Julian Assange is wanted in connection with a grave sexual offence in a country that has a fair-trial justice system consistent with the highest international standards. Instead of cooperating with the Swedish authorities, as he should have done, Mr Assange has chosen to hole up in a foreign embassy, deliberately frustrating a serious criminal investigation. To describe his situation as ‘arbitrary detention’ is ludicrous.
Assange is relying, rather overly and strangely, on the report of the UN working party because he has failed to get his case considered through the more obvious and legally robust avenue of the ECHR, as the Guardian reports:
The European court of human rights was another option…(for Assange)…although the Strasbourg court confirmed on Friday that an application lodged by Assange in November against the UK and Sweden had been declared inadmissible the following month.
In the light of all this, Assange’s statements yesterday were bordering on farce.
If Assange was likely to be extradited to a country with a poor justice and human rights record, then one could understand his reluctance to leave himself open to extradition. But Sweden?
I can see no immediate resolution to this impasse. Perhaps an accomodation can be agreed for Swedish investigators to question Assange while sharing pink champagne and spoonfuls of Russian caviar from his Harrods hampers in the Equadorian embassy. One imagines that the saga may not end until 2020 when the Swedish statute of limitations runs out on Mr Assange’s rape allegation.
That is no justice for the alleged victim in Sweden.