Assange and Polanski, brothers in arms

2010-12-18 00:00

POOR Julian Assange, maverick founder of Wikileaks and plucker of tail feathers from the American eagle. How embarrassing that the histrionic celebrities weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth at his London extradition hearing are much the same luvvies who last year supported Roman Polanski’s battle against extradition.

It’s like one of those tacky Hollywood sequels. Film director Polanski faced extradition to the United States after fleeing to Europe in 1977 to avoid charges of sex with a 13-year-old girl. Freedom of information crusader Assange faces extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual molestation of two women.

Polanski’s supporters rejected extradition because Polanski had been “forced” to become a fugitive because of “injustice” — the original trial judge apparently intended to renege on a plea bargain that would have Polanski serve probation rather than jail time. To 32 years later subject this “artistic genius” who had already suffered much angst — and had paid off his accuser — to the trauma of a new trial was “unfair”.

The nomadic Assange has equally passionate supporters, vying with astronomical sums of bail and shouldering one another aside to shelter what the Independent calls “the world’s most wanted house guest”.

Assange’s fans, like those of Polanski, assert that he should not face trial because it would be “unfair” — at best the U.S. will pressure the Swedes to stitch up Assange; at worst they will extradite him to the U.S., where he will face a puppet trial.

Let’s start with a professional disclaimer. This columnist’s instincts are in favour of constitutionally protected, free flows of information and against the culture of mindless government secrecy that Wikileaks has eroded and held up to such well-deserved ridicule.

That said, one recognises that no government can function without state secrets. So there are in democracies two sets of rights that are in perpetual and necessary opposition, with constitutional protections mediated by what one trusts is an independent judiciary.

The government must keep state secrets according to its interpretation of the national interest.

The media must act, using the legal defence of public good, to expose the many abuses that politicians inevitably seek to hide under that selfsame blanket of national interest.

There is not the slightest evidence that Assange will not receive a fair trial in Sweden, nor that the sex charges against him are politically trumped up.

Indeed, if they were — and undoubtedly there are politicians from Beijing to Washington who would love to see him jailed  — Assange’s best ultimate protection would be a vigorous and successful rebuttal of the charges in an open Stockholm court, before the world’s assembled media.

The sex charges against Assange are for a court to decide, not for a bunch of limp-wristed, hand-wringing celebrities, whose belief in conspiracy is in direct proportion to their enthusiasm for the political views of the defendant.

These are the very same people who, despising his politics, insisted a few years back that Jacob Zuma should stand trial on rape charges, despite similar misgivings by some that the allegations were politically motivated.

While is true that political pressure can influence prosecutorial decisions — ask Zuma — there is no evidence that the Swedish judiciary, nor the U.S. one, for that matter, is so corrupt as to deliver verdicts to government prescription.

Without evidence of systemic corruption, one must rely on the courts to proceed fairly and for the process of accusation, rebuttal, judgment and appeal to produce what is ultimately a just result.

So it is time for Assange to face the music. And for his howling supporters to remember that his accusers, even if they are only women, also have rights.

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