End of the Julian Assange legal saga

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s release from prison and departure from the UK ends one of the lengthiest legal sagas this country has witnessed. It is not one that has reflected well on the British judicial system.

Assange is hardly a sympathetic figure, but his likeability is of little relevance to whether he has been properly treated. The Wikileaks founder, who once sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, spent five years in Belmarsh high-security prison even though he was never charged with a crime in this country.

He was incarcerated awaiting his removal to America, accused of espionage because of his role in releasing millions of classified documents leaked by the former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, later jailed for treasonable offences.

Many think Assange is a self-regarding egocentric, a would-be martyr who has seemingly managed to alienate most people, including many of his early backers. The Americans considered him an enemy of the state. His supporters see him as an anti-Establishment figure informing the public of activities the state tried to hush up.

Assange was initially arraigned under a European Arrest Warrant issued by Sweden alleging rape and sexual assault. He said this was a ruse to get him into custody, whereupon he would be sought by America over the leaking of cables and other diplomatic papers connected to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After Sweden dropped the charges against him, his fears seemed well grounded when Ecuador lifted its protection and Washington sought his extradition. The past five years have been spent fighting the US request through the courts, even though British ministers had agreed to it.

Assange was accused of recklessly publishing information harmful to Western interests and to individual soldiers and agents. He maintains that he encrypted the files but the key was published by journalists, thereby permitting open access.

There is also evidence that he obtained some of his information through hacking rather than leaks from whistleblowers. Moreover, Assange did not do enough due diligence about what was going to be published and his links to Russia have never been fully explained.

But few can deny that exposing some US military practices was justified on public interest grounds. When states try to shut people up, we must always be prepared to ask why without fear or favour.