Extradition has lost its way
Julian Assange, the Australian founder of Wikileaks, is spending another night in Wandsworth prison, in solitary confinement in the segregation wing, forbidden to have any contact with other prisoners, in conditions described by his lawyer as ‘Dickensian’. Apparently he is not allowed the use of a telephone (beyond two calls a day) or television set; he is not allowed to see newspapers; an envelope that had contained a copy of Time magazine with his picture on the cover, sent to him by Time, did reach him but with the magazine missing; other mail is also not getting through to him; visitors are rationed and limited. He is confined to his cell for 23-1/2 hours of every 24. He won his appeal today against the denial of bail, but as the Swedish authorities have given notice of their intention to appeal against the grant of bail, he will remain behind bars for at least another 48 hours and perhaps longer.
One might well ask of what heinous crime Mr Assange has been convicted by a jury of his peers to deserve such harsh and humiliating punishment? None. Then with what crime has he been charged, to be required to be kept behind bars pending his trial, among murderers and robbers? None. His sole offence is to be wanted in Sweden for questioning. He has volunteered to answer any Swedish questioning, conducted by Swedish policemen, in Britain, perhaps in the Swedish embassy or in a London police station, but the offer has been declined — or ignored.
So what evidence of a reasonable suspicion that he might have committed some offence in Sweden has been produced to the court to justify removing him against his will to a foreign country on the application of the Swedish authorities? None. What behaviour has he been accused of by some private Swedish citizens that is, on the face of it, an offence or offences under both Swedish and English law? None.
None of this has the slightest formal connection with Mr Assange’s recent activity in releasing the celebrated Wikileaks. We are asked to believe that this monstrous injustice is being visited on him purely on the basis of some vague and so far unsubstantiated accusations by some ladies with whom he once had sex, and that all this would be happening to him even if Wikileaks had never been invented. It’s pure coincidence, we are to suppose, that in the United States quite reputable political leaders are demanding that Mr Assange be extradited to the US, put on trial for treason (on the basis, presumably, that as an Australian he has a duty of loyalty to the United States), and executed. But this has nothing to do with the Swedish application for his extradition to Sweden to answer questions about a possible offence for which he has not even been charged. And meanwhile he remains a prisoner, incarcerated in an English prison.
By what possible right do our own authorities dare to deny this man, who is doubly entitled to the presumption of innocence (not having been either charged with or convicted of any offence), the ordinary facilities available to a free man? Why can’t he telephone whoever he likes, for as long and as often as he chooses? Why can’t he have whatever visitors he wants? Watch television and receive all his mail, unopened and uncensored? Send out for his meals? Wear his own clothes, including his ties and shoe-laces? His treatment is a slap in the face of English justice. If in the end he is extradited, the injustice will be even more grotesque.
The case of the computer hacker Gary McKinnon, whom the Americans want to extradite for hacking into the Pentagon’s secret computer system from his bedroom in Wood Green, North London, has aroused widespread concern about the manifestly unequal provisions of the UK-US extradition treaty, now at last being reviewed by the new coalition government. Now we see the utterly unacceptable consequences of the European Arrest Warrant, under which anyone may be extradited from any EU member country to another on application, without a shadow of due process or any other legal protection against abuse. Anyone who suspects that I must be exaggerating the scandalous character of this system only has to read the article in today’s Guardian by the newspaper’s admirable legal affairs correspondent, Afua Hirsch:
Now followers of the WikiLeaks story wonder how Assange could be extradited with so few questions asked. Why, for example, can our prisons detain someone (Assange is currently on remand in Wandsworth prison) for an offence under Swedish law that does not exist in British law? And how can a judge agree to an extradition without having seen enough evidence to make out a prima facie case?
The 2003 Extradition Act originated in an EU decision agreed just one week after 9/11. It was sold to voters as a way of ensuring cross-border cohesion in prosecuting suspects wanted across Europe for terrorism and serious crime. The level of cohesion in criminal justice systems across Europe, the argument went, and their common obligations under the European convention on human rights, provided a sufficient basis of trust that an arrest warrant by an EU country could be agreed by the UK with little scrutiny.
It’s been downhill from there. Around three people per day are now extradited from the UK, and there is little to suggest that the majority are terrorists or serious criminals. In fact those involved in the process agree that many of the cases are “trivial”… [Emphasis added]
It’s beyond belief that not only the previous government but also our elected parliament, supposedly the sturdy guardian of our ancient liberties, indolently sat on their hands while these travesties of fundamental rights were passed into law. Our present government has promised to make a bonfire of the illiberal measures for which a succession of Labour home secretaries were shamingly responsible. That bonfire can’t be lit a moment too soon.