Leading article: Oh, what a tangled web he weaves

Thursday 09 December 2010 01:00

The Australian campaigner Julian Assange owes his fame, or his notoriety, depending on your view, to his position as founder and chief advocate of the whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks. When he gave himself up to police on Tuesday, however, his arrest had nothing to do with WikiLeaks – at least not formally.

It related to sexual offences, including rape, alleged to have been committed in Sweden. A European arrest warrant had been taken out in his name, and the judge refused bail on the grounds that he might abscond. Mr Assange is fighting extradition and could remain in prison for a while.

This is where confusion risks setting in. There are those who believe the Swedish charges to be trumped up in order to discredit him, possibly by agencies not a million miles from the CIA, and this is by no means implausible. Mr Assange and his lawyers speak of "persecution, not prosecution". An extension of the theory has it that the US believes it would be simpler to have him extradited from Sweden to answer secret charges in the US, but it is not clear why this should be so.

The Swedish charges and American fury over the latest WikiLeaks revelations could be connected. Equally, they could be different things. The judge who hears the extradition case will have to weigh possible motives and the likelihood of a fair trial. It is already clear, however, that those who oppose Mr Assange's crusade for openness are more likely to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt on the sex charges, while those who support WikiLeaks will tend to regard the accusations as a cynical ploy. Such alignments, however, are born of prejudice, not proof.

We have misgivings about Mr Assange's absolutist approach to freedom of information, which seems to disregard the potential harm to individuals, even as he pursues his contempt for states. At the same time, the campaign mounted against WikiLeaks by concerns, such as MasterCard, could rebound by casting him even more as a David figure battling Goliath. Mr Assange's swashbuckling mystique has made him a touchstone for many issues. It is important that they do not become more confused than they already are.

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