Why the Assange case matters

On 1st February 2012 I attended a hearing at the new Supreme Court in London, where lawyers for Julian Assange – founder of the whistleblowing website Wikileaks – were challenging the validity of the European Arrest Warrant under which Assange faces extradition to Sweden, where he has been charged with rape.

assange-supremecourt

Julian Assange arriving at London's Supreme Court on 1st February 2012

Many observers suspect that these rape charges are a pretext to silence Wikileaks, and potentially might see Assange extradited to the USA, where he would face a very long prison sentence for publishing more than 250,000 secret diplomatic cables.  These leaks, which began to be published on Assange’s website in February 2010, were a major catalyst for the Tunisian revolution that kicked off last year’s “Arab Spring”.  Wikileaks also published BNP membership lists in 2008 and 2009.

But the Supreme Court hearing did not look into the merits or otherwise of either the Wikileaks publications or the Swedish charges.  It centred rather on the validity of the European Arrest Warrant, and in doing so raised issues important to all of us.

Until the last decade there were long established principles for extraditing alleged criminals across national borders, recognising that different countries have very different legal systems.  First of all there would have to be an extradition treaty between the countries concerned, and the initial extradition request would be made between governments.  Then there would have to be a court hearing, in which for example an English court would have to be convinced that: (a) Assange’s alleged offences would have been criminal in the UK as well as in Sweden – the principle of “dual criminality”;  (b) there was at least a prima facie case against him;  (c) he could expect a fair trial.

Jack Straw, co-architect of the European Arrest Warrant system

Jack Straw, co-architect of the European Arrest Warrant system

All of this was thrown out as part of the ideologically driven push for European Union.  The political elite eventually realised that “harmonisation” of laws and procedures across the continent would prove too problematic, so they opted instead for the principle of “mutual recognition”.  Jack Straw, Home Secretary in Tony Blair’s government at the turn of the millennium, suggested moving towards a position “where each Member State recognises the validity of decisions of courts from other Member States in criminal matters with a minimum of procedure and formality”.

In practice this meant the new European Arrest Warrant system, under which English courts are no longer allowed to question whether the alleged “crime” is covered by English law, nor whether there is even a prima facie case against the accused, nor even (in most cases) whether the accused could expect a fair trial.  All the English court is allowed to do is check whether the European warrant has been validly made out, then rubber stamp the warrant and send the accused on his way to a European trial.

All this would be bad enough, but the issue addressed in Assange’s apopeal is that in his case (and others) the arrest warrant has not been issued by any sort of judge, but by a public prosecutor – so at this stage the case has not even be considered by anyone independent.  As Assange’s barrister Dinah Rose pointed out, this contravenes the tradition of nemo iudex in causa sua – no-one should be a judge of his own case.

Worse still, it appears that during the passage of the European warrant system into English law, this potential problem was flagged up more than once, only to be fobbed off by government ministers with the assurance that in practice there would be no need to worry.  In January 2002 for example, Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth told the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee: “it will not be possible for authorities that clearly are not courts, that are not judicial authorities to issue requests for European arrest warrants as they will not be recognised.”

Dr Fredrick Toben, whose legal team defeated a German extradition effort by overturning a European Arrest Warrant

Dr Fredrick Toben, whose legal team defeated a German extradition effort by overturning a European Arrest Warrant

Yet in the present case a Swedish prosecutor – clearly not a court – has issued a warrant which has indeed been recognised by the English courts, and unless the Supreme Court overturns that recognition Julian Assange will be extradited on exactly the type of warrant that Tony Blair’s minister assured Parliament would never be allowed. The Assange case is in this respect reminiscent of the Toben case, under which Australian academic Dr Fredrick Toben faced extradition to Germany for “crimes” that did not even amount to an offence under English law.  That case fell at the first hurdle when Toben’s defence team challenged the validity of the German warrant: this time the Supreme Court will have to make a historic decision addressing the fundamental principles of the European Arrest Warrant.

BNP activist cleared in court

LANCASHIRE EVENING POST, 21 June 2010: A BNP activist from Lancashire who wrote and distributed leaflets which blamed Muslims collectively for the heroin trade has been cleared of intending to incite religious hatred.

Tony BamberAnthony Bamber, 54, told a jury his intention was to create a debate about the “crime against humanity” that was the flow of the drug on to Britain’s streets.

He was responsible for heading a campaign which sent up to 30,000 of the leaflets by hand or post to targeted areas and individuals throughout the north of England over a 12-month period.

Bamber, of Greenbank Street, Preston pleaded not guilty to seven counts of distributing threatening written material intended to stir up religious hatred between March and November 2008. He was cleared by a jury at Preston Crown Court of all seven counts.

Representing himself, Bamber said there had been “no unpleasant incidents or social unrest” following the sending of the leaflets. Giving evidence last week, he explained they were targeted at educated professionals such as teachers, doctors, lawyers and clerics who were unlikely to take physical retribution against Muslims upon reading the literature. His aim was to create curiosity and interest which would then lead to a debate, he said.

Link to full article [external site]

‘This isn’t the Britain we fought for,’ say the ‘unknown warriors’ of WWII

DAILY MAIL, 21 Nov 2009: Sarah Robinson was just a teenager when World War II broke out. She endured the Blitz, watching for fires during Luftwaffe air raids armed with a bucket of sand. Often she would walk ten miles home from work in the blackout, with bombs falling around her.

As soon as she turned 18, she joined the Royal Navy to do her bit for the war effort. Hers was a small part in a huge, history-making enterprise, and her contribution epitomises her generation’s sense of service and sacrifice.

Nearly 400,000 Britons died. Millions more were scarred by the experience, physically and mentally.

But was it worth it? Her answer – and the answer of many of her contemporaries, now in their 80s and 90s – is a resounding No. 

Read full article [external link]

Teen badly hurt in ‘racist’ attack

THE PRESS, Dewsbury, 11 Nov 2009: A TEENAGE boy was knocked unconscious with a house brick, stabbed with a screwdriver and “left for dead” in a vicious race attack.

Joseph Haigh, 14, was savagely beaten by the gang of up to 15 Asian youths in Thornhill on Friday night.

The gang hurled racist abuse at him, constantly referring to the colour of his skin, yet police refused to classify the attack as racially-motivated.

Joseph’s dad Jonathan, 42, of Thornhill, said: “It was a racist attack.

“They were calling him ‘white trash’ and white this, that and the other.

“This is why people are angry about what is happening in this country.

“If it had been an attack by whites on an Asian lad it would have been a definite race attack. When it’s the other way round they don’t want to know.”

Read full article [external link]

Jo Brand: ‘you can’t be racist towards white people’

“[Y]ou can be prejudiced towards a group of people who are more powerful than you, but I don’t think you can be racist towards them,” says ‘comedienne’ Jo Brand.

Not very funny, Jo. You seem to be thinking that ordinary white people in their own country are politically more powerful than other ethnic groupings. They are not!

TELEGRAPH BLOGS, 14Oct09: The ever-excellent Biased BBC notes that Jo Brand has been explaining the meaning of racism on Radio Five Live:

Jo Brand: My personal opinion is that you can’t be racist towards white people. You can be prejudiced about them but being prejudiced isn’t an illegal act whereas being racist can be.

Phil Williams: Don’t you think racism is just being derogatory about a race, regardless of the colour?

Jo Brand: No I don’t. I think the definition of racism also encompasses political power. So you can’t be racist towards a race that’s politically more powerful than a minority. That to me is the correct definition of racism. I think you can be prejudiced towards a group of people who are more powerful than you, but I don’t think you can be racist towards them.

Read full article [external link]

BNP to consider admitting non-whites

Do we not fight to overturn “an infringement of our rights” these days?

REUTERS, 15Oct09: The far-right British National Party (BNP) agreed on Thursday to ask its members to amend its constitution to allow non-whites to join, in a bid to fend off court action from equality campaigners.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission launched legal action against the BNP earlier this year, arguing the party’s exclusion of potential members on ethnic grounds broke the Race Relations Act.

BNP leader Nick Griffin had warned the party faced potentially crippling legal bills if it fought the case, and the commission said he had now accepted its demands to change the party’s stance on membership.

[snip]

“We have got to comply if we want to stay in the game,” a BNP spokesman told the BBC. “Of course it’s not right,” he said of the court case. “It’s an infringement of our rights.”

Read full article [external link]

Food for thought…

CHANNEL 4, 12Oct09: The Enemy Within (49mins).

An extremist ideology is sweeping across Europe. Fundamentalist terrorist groups are operating in London. They want to end the British way of life and a minority are prepared to bomb and kill to get what they want. But the year is 1892: Victorian England…

Watch the programme on Channel 4 OD [external link]

Read more [external link]

Sonic warfare: U.S. police admit they trained a ‘spotlight of sound’ louder than a jet engine on G20 rioters

DAILY MAIL, 2Oct09: Critics have slammed American police officers after they trained an ear-splitting ‘spotlight of sound’ on G20 protesters in Pittsburgh last week.

The device can beam ‘unbearable’ alarm tones and voice commands to nearly two miles away. To a person standing three feet in front of it, it is louder than a jet engine.

The device, called a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), concentrates sound in a 30- or 60-degree cone. … The volume measures 140-150 decibels three feet away – louder than a jet engine – but dissipates with distance.

Read full article [external link]

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