During his decade in public interest, Julian Assange has shown himself to be a horrible egoist with an ugly sense of justice that falls on almost everyone he meets.
Sometimes he has allegedly shown borderline sociopathic behavior, allegedly made anti-Semitic statements and, it is claimed, questionable personal habits.
But is the founder of WikiLeaks also a dangerous criminal who deserves to be beaten in an American prison for the rest of his natural life? Well, the answer to that is rather more complex.
Assange, a 48-year-old Australian, is being sought by the US Department of Justice on 18 criminal charges: 17 counts of espionage and one of computer hacking. If he is found guilty of all of them, he can be imprisoned for 175 years.
Assange (photo), a 48-year-old Australian, is being sought by the US Department of Justice on 18 criminal charges. He is depicted as arriving in Westminster Magistrates Court last April
In London, about 500 of his supporters gathered in the weekend prior to the Assange extradition to protest. Others have argued that he should be used as a “pawn” in the diplomatic queue about the death of teenager Harry Dunn in a traffic accident.
The US refused an extradition request in the UK last month for Anne Sacoolas, the CIA agent who accepted responsibility for the teenager’s death but then fled the country.
That is an unlikely development, but the extradition of Assange, which starts today at Woolwich Crown Court, is a serious undertaking that raises important questions about freedom of expression and human rights.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who visited Assange at HMP Belmarsh last weekend and thinks he is a heroic whistleblower, has declared it “one of the most important and important political processes of this generation, if not longer.”
And there are many British experts and campaigns for free speech who, largely for well-founded reasons, believe that his rendition can have a hair-raising effect on democracy, possibly leading to the criminalization of newspapers publishing leaked government documents.
So what’s the truth? To explore it, first a brief history of this controversial case. It dates from 2010, when Assange became a nightly celebrity after his obscure website WikiLeaks released a video entitled ‘Collateral Murder’.
It showed an American Apache helicopter in Baghdad who repeatedly shot at a group of men, including a Reuters photographer and his driver, who killed 12.
Shortly thereafter, an American intelligence analyst named Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley) contacted him with access to secret governmental databases.
Assange then published nearly 490,000 US intelligence files that Manning had passed on to him regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and information about prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. He has also made public a tranche of 250,000 cables from the US Department of Foreign Affairs.
Father John Shipton of Julian Assange and former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis today visit the founder of Wikileaks at HMP Belmarsh in London
Many have helped uncover illegal or questionable US behavior, including their role in abduction, torture and illegal espionage.
The supporters of Assange, many virulent against the War on Terror, claim that the dissemination of the information was a public service act that allowed US citizens and their allies to see what governments were doing in their name.
In left circles he duly became an immediate hero. Assange – believed to have four children from different women – began a wave of publicity on an internationally speaking tour.
After a visit to Stockholm in August 2010, the local police were contacted by two women who claimed that Assange had recently slept with them.
Both said their encounters had begun by consensus, but later darkened. One claimed that he had intentionally ‘damaged’ a condom before peeling her during sex. The other accused him of having unprotected sex with her while she slept.
With Assange out of the country, Sweden obtained an international arrest warrant. Assange claimed that his accusers were part of an international conspiracy to silence him.
With the help of wealthy benefactors, including Jemima Goldsmith and filmmaker Ken Loach, he was released on bail and ordered lawyers to fight the indictment.
It would turn out to be a lost battle. So on the night of June 19, 2012, he applied for asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge in London. He was in residence until last April, when he was started up and imprisoned for bail.
Fast forward to today: Swedish prosecutors no longer want to institute rape prosecutions, but their American colleagues want Assange to be extradited for his role in leaking and publishing classified material.
Assange is of course shocked by the prospect. His legal team, led by the famous human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, who represented the Guildford Four, will claim that the move would, for example, be illegal under the terms of the 2007 British Extradition Treaty with the US, which contains an exception for “political offenses ”.
Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton, gives thumbs up after a visit to Julian Assange today at HMP Belmarsh in London
They also plan to use “public charges” from senior members of the Trump government to assert that Assange cannot possibly have a fair trial.
Perhaps clumsy, in this regard, the US is emphatically choosing not to prosecute Assange for a second leak of hacked documents: a tranche of stolen emails (almost certainly by Russian agents) from the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and on WikiLeaks.
Donald Trump found this aspect of Assange’s work very useful indeed, and declared “I love WikiLeaks” at rallies. Some have seen this as proof that Trump is conspiring with Moscow. Last week, Assange’s lawyers even claimed that former Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher offered him leniency in exchange for publicly denying Russia’s involvement in the leak (although Mr. Rohrabacher and Washington dispute this).
Elsewhere in the extradition case is an intriguing sub-plot with allegations that a private security company, Undercover Global SL, has installed secret recording devices at the Embassy of Ecuador and has transmitted footage to the CIA.
Assange claims that this not only violates his human rights, but also means that the US authorities have recordings of conversations he has had with his lawyers, preventing him from getting a fair trial again.
However, the central pillar of the extradition challenge of its lawyers revolves around the argument that banning Assange would make it illegal for news broadcasts to publish stories based on leaked government documents.
As the New York Times puts it: “Although he is not a conventional journalist, much of what Assange does at WikiLeaks is hard to distinguish in a legally meaningful way from what traditional news organizations do …”
Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, in a prison van, when he left Southwark Crown Court in London last May
This argument contains some water. But it is at odds with an important fact: Assange is also responsible for carrying out the hacking that the leaked material obtained in the first place.
The US government claims that in March 2010 he helped Chelsea Manning crack a password stored on his computers. As recent history has shown, journalists who commit hacking are often vigorously prosecuted by law.
Then there is the question of how Assange has passed on material to him. Unlike a responsible journalist, he did nothing to check, analyze, or edit the information he had obtained prior to publication.
The result? The American indictment describes how Assange’s non-edited documents identified and endangered the lives of US intelligence sources in Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Iran, Syria and various other countries.
Supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange are holding placards outside the Westminster Magistrates Court in London
If Assange wants to compare himself to a journalist, he will no doubt be asked to justify this behavior. The other gap in his defense is the apparent belief that he will not receive a fair trial in the US. America has some of the strongest freedom of expression in the world thanks to the first amendment.
This explains why Barack Obama decided not to pursue Assange’s extradition, fearing a defense based on the First Amendment would greatly complicate the efforts to convict him.
There is a controversial precedent: in 1971 the Washington Post newspaper published articles based on the leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers. Although much of the material was classified and stolen in the Papers, the Supreme Court ruled that they had the right to print it.
If the American extradition request is successful, no doubt after endless calls, many observers think that it is very likely that Assange will be acquitted on 17 of the 18 charges he is facing.
That is a result that strengthens Western democracy rather than weakening it and makes journalists and others who try to appeal to our ruling class stronger.
The costs of computer hacking are of course another matter.