So far, the latest chapter in the Julian Assange chronicle within the Ecuadorian embassy in London is one of mixed, and ultimately doomed promise. He is ailing, though it was clear that a deficiency in Vitamin D for a period of two years was bound to have some effect. Added to this lung and heart problems, and we have a serious patient with serious needs. Not even conventional prisoners should be denied a certain mandatory level of sunlight a day. “I am leaving the embassy soon,” he claimed on Monday, “but perhaps not for the reasons [reported].”
In other words, reports about his medical condition taking a toll have been exaggerated, though this may be wishful thinking on his part. Attempts to allow Assange safe passage for hospital treatment have been rebuffed by threats of arrest. The consular assistance from his country, always a tormenting trickle, has totally dried out.
Live feeds on various networks began running the moment Assange suggested an imminent departure. Police – more than usual – gathered outside the embassy, anticipating their sickened quarry at any moment. A stream of individuals made their appearance at the door, going in with briefcases. But Assange did not appear.
The entire episode has become a source of crude mirth, and even the vengeful ones are not entirely sure of the difference anymore. “Julian Assange is a contributor to potential terrorism” was one statement tweeted with indifference, which is about as illuminating as the idea that reading Sophocles is bound to make your eyes bleed.
The Daily Mash pondered whether Assange’s isolation for such a length of time had induced masturbation to dangerous levels. Others ventured that, “The Bolivians must have lost patience and finally cut off the Vegemite supply”. The assumption here, unless the commentator got it entirely wrong in terms of nationality, was that those in the adjoining Bolivian embassy were somehow insuring the supply to begin with.
The persistent ill-delivered trash about “charges of rape” – none have been filed, with a prosecution that was dropped only to be resurrected with suspect enthusiasm; the reluctance to actually interview the man, and the usual tittle tattle about the prospects that he will be absolutely safe in waltzing into the arms of the interrogating police; got a boost with the announcement he would be coming out. When he failed to make an appearance, accusations of egomania were thrown at him. Surrender, and shut up.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, recently observed that “two years of uncertainty and lack of justice for everyone” has characterised the case. Two years, the minister suggested, is enough. Many agree. Patino senses that the winds have changed. “We believe the recent reports (of the legal changes) indicate a better climate for us to reach an agreement.”1 What, however, is actually blowing?
The legal card up Assange’s sleeve were amendments to the Extradition Act 2003, which is already being suggested as a possible shield. Section 12A bars extradition to a category 1 territory where the authorities in that territory have not yet made a decision to charge or try the requested person. Additionally, the person’s absence from that territory is not deemed the only reason for that failure.
Unfortunately for Assange, the card, supposedly placed there by Damian Green’s reforms, was never there to begin with, despite his assertion of the “understanding” reached in the United Kingdom regarding Ecuador’s position. Retrospective applications are anathema to the legal system in general, with targeted exceptions, and the UK Home Office has made no secret of that. As a spokesperson immediately explained in the wake of the flurry in Knightsbridge, “There were changes made to the law but they are not retrospective.”2 While Assange’s case may well have figured in the legal changes, he is unlikely to benefit from them.
Furthermore, any effective change has to be made at the European level, notably on the mechanism surrounding the enforcement of European Arrest Warrants. The British changes do incorporate a proportionality test in testing the worth of EAWs, measured by a National Crime Agency. Legal commentators see little prospect that the agency is going to go cold on certifying most requests, accept the “most ludicrous” ones.3
To that end, Assange has been seeking reassurances from the British government that he won’t be nabbed by those awaiting him outside. His lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, told ABC News Breakfast that the departure would be arranged “as soon as conditions can be negotiated that allow Julian to leave the embassy while his political asylum, to protect him from the risk of extradition to the US, [is] respected. And we haven’t seen that happen yet.”4
This won’t matter much if he is charged the moment he leaves the premises, giving him a 10 day window before extradition. The UK Home Office has shown little by way of conciliatoriness in that regard. As this drama unfolds, Swedish proceedings loom large, as does the ongoing grand jury investigation in the US.
There is certainly much that can be made about what Assange might assume or otherwise about his prospects the moment he steps out of the embassy. Andrew O’Hagan5 is balanced in his assessment of working with Assange in his lengthy London Review of Books article, showing a difficult character muddling his way through history. But he is careful to distinguish the personal from the project. Personalising history, which is, whatever our efforts, a motor without charm or value, is a mistake. People actually start getting bothered when a historical agent is not pleasant, presuming a tea-party politeness. Anyone with a sliver of sense about the makers of history knows that history is almost never made by the kind hearted of spirit, or the humble of mind. When you get into the boxing ring of fate, the blows fly and the meek will flee.
What counts for most are the ideas which, when embraced, assume their own force of will. None are as strong than ones whose time has come, as Victor Hugo famously remarked. If the worst can be averted, and Assange’s demands can be met, even halfway, then there will be some silent cheering. But the more likely prospect, promised by the British authorities who have expended 7 million pounds in keeping him under surveillance, is immediate arrest, and extradition, with the chapter taking its next ugly turn.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org