Is he a hero or a criminal? The arrest of WikiLeaks’ owner Julian Assange has led to a fierce debate on the fine line between press freedom and state security.
But one thing has been forgotten: the arrest of Mr Assange and the revelations by WikiLeaks are two separate issues. And, looked at from a legal point of view, they should stay that way.
Julian Assange in custody
- Julian Assange has been in the custody of the UK authorities since 7 December 2010, based on an arrest warrant from Sweden.
- Swedish prosecutors accuse Assange of sexual misconduct, which carries a maximum sentence of four years imprisonment. He has denied all allegations.
- Assange appeared in a London court on Wednesday, where judges refused his request for bail. He will appear again in the court on 14 December, when the subject of extradition to Sweden will be discussed.
- Meanwhile, the United States is trying to build a legal case against Assange for Wikileaks’ publication of secret US documents, claiming he has violated the country's Espionage Act.
- Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Wednesday there has been no contact between Swedish and US authorities about Assange’s possible extradition
- The extradition agreements between Sweden and the US are significantly stricter than those between the UK and the US.
The meeting took place just after the publication of a video showing US soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians from an Apache helicopter. The media pressure was huge back then.
“We had dinner together and I was constantly phoned by journalists asking whether I knew where Julian was or if I had his number. Even the New York Times was on the line. As if I were his spokesperson.”
Julian Assange turned himself in to the British police in London on Tuesday and will be held in custody until 14 December. Sweden wants to question the founder of WikiLeaks in connection with two cases of sexual intimidation. The Australian denies the allegations.
“It is difficult for us to assess the background of Assange’s arrest on the basis of the available facts,” says Bits of Freedom managing director Ot van Daalen. “We understand from the reports that the offences he is accused of carry a fine of less than 700 euros, while a request for his arrest was made via Interpol. If that is true, it is very strange to say the least.”
Research journalist and web-watcher Henk van Ess agrees, “In the last eight years Interpol has never been used to clear up a local sex offence. That raises questions.”
Mr Van Ess contacted Mr Assange a number of times, usually via his lawyer. “Assange avoids direct contact. Sometimes I was asked for his telephone number 20 times a day. But it doesn’t work like that.”
The journalist developed a special search engine (http://cablesearch.org/) to make the WikiLeaks cables more accessible. This diplomatic post may contain juicy information, but it doesn’t mean much without the context.
Mr Van Ess is not a fan of Mr Assange, but he doesn’t oppose him either. “As a journalist I certainly wouldn’t have published some documents. What does it matter whether or not the son of a diplomat has leukaemia?”
The journalist would also have avoided printing a list of locations vulnerable to terrorist attacks. “It has been published without any context. WikiLeaks just shows that there is a list. That is just to pester the authorities.”
Ms Schaake thinks the current situation gives reason for concern. “We have to make sure we differentiate between the Swedish allegations and the WikiLeaks revelations,” she says. “In the United States in particular, it is very black and white. The reaction of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was to call the arrest ‘good news’, you just can’t say that.”
The Dutch politician and European Parliament member, who has just returned from the United States, was shocked by US reactions: “The tone is similar to just after the 9/11 attacks. Everything goes, even if it means violating human rights.”
Concern is also growing in the Dutch parliament. The Green Left party wants to know how the Netherlands together with the European Union intends to prevent Mr Assange ending up in an American cell. However, the best thing politicians with such views can do is to protest against the court’s ruling if Mr Assange is extradited.
Even if and when the legal proceedings are behind him, Julian Assange will not be able to relax. He has received various death threats, some of them from people in the United States, and someone might just carry out such a threat.
Ms Schaake thinks Mr Assange should be given protection. “From the authorities in his country of birth, Australia, or from the country he chooses to live in.”
Even without the death threats Mr Assange will continue to live a nomadic lifestyle, Henk van Ess thinks. He has become too involved with WikiLeaks. Not out of choice, but because of mechanisms. He keeps a tight hold on the reins out of fear of infiltration. He is the boss and wants to defend what has been built up. His involvement with the revelations will never change.”