10 September 2012

Assange and presumptions of innocence

There's nothing really new to the Julian Assange story, but in The Nation JoAnn Wypijewski restates the case against extradition in stark terms. "the law is no more capable of delivering justice in his case today than it was for a black man alleged to have raped a white woman in the Jim Crow South," she writes, "I am not comparing the founder of WikiLeaks, a white man benefiting from not only white-skin privilege and straight-man privilege but also class and celebrity privilege, with black men on the other side of a lynch mob. This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state."

She then goes on to compare Assange to black men on the other side of a lynch mob. "Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy....With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale."

For Wypijewski it's self-evident that any attempt to prosecute Assange after the Wikileaks info dumps is politically motivated. She believes that evidence from Sweden backs her up. In fairness, her presentation of the evidence should be quoted.

Police were so quick to initiate the arrest process that one of the women who came to them—to see if Assange could be forced to take an STD test after she’d had unprotected sex with him—became distraught and refused to give further testimony. The Swedish prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant for rape and molestation on one day and withdrew it the next, saying there was no reason to suspect rape, and that the other claim wasn’t serious enough for a warrant. About a week later, the Swedish director of prosecution reopened the investigation, and a court later approved her request to detain Assange for rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. By then he was in London, having been told he was free to leave Sweden. Assange was working with the New York Times and the Guardian in advance of launching the Iraq War Logs when the Swedes issued an international arrest warrant. He was readying the release of a cache of diplomatic cables when Interpol got involved, issuing a “red notice” for his arrest. 

Without a presumption of motive, all of this amounts to circumstantial evidence. But Wypijewski apparently thinks anyone naive who doesn't presume motive. The only alternative interpretation for her is that the sex-crime aspect of the case triggers a presumption of guilt among "liberals, and even some self-described radicals" -- but not among feminists? " If it were anything but sex, we would insist on the presumption of innocence," she protests. But is it automatically a presumption of guilt to suggest that Assange should face his accusers in court? If Wypijewski believes this, then she believes objectivity itself to be impossible in the Assange case. In her view, you can only be for him or against him. That's "partisan immunity" on the individual level, grounded on the same assumption of biased prosecution. The assumption itself is biased, since the author assumes that Wikileaks is the necessary and sufficient cause of the prosecution. However much she may deny it, the implication of Wypijewski's stance is that Assange has become untouchable. Since she assumes that the U.S. wants to punish him, any criminal charge hereafter made against him can be presumed political and denied legitimacy. She might give in if a video showed him shooting someone, but I suppose she'd also look into the possibility that the video had been doctored.

Wypijewski's regular beat is sexual politics, and keeping on topic she attempts to generalize from the Assange case.

It should be possible to imagine a resolution outside the criminal justice system for problems that arise in the course of consensual sexual coupling: dissatisfaction over the use (or ill use) of condoms, constraints that keep people from expressing their wishes or intuiting those of another, selfishness, insensitivity, confusions as “yes” slides into “no” and back to “yes,” perhaps wordlessly—all issues that seem to apply in the Assange case but exist beyond it. That will require a braver sexual politics (and at least another column), and it does not demean experience to recognize that the language of punishment is a poor substitute for the lost language of love.

But the main theme of her present column is that the U.S., its allies and clients can't be trusted to deal impartially with Julian Assange. It's sadly necessary here to acknowledge that her argument isn't entirely unreasonable. It also must be said that she doesn't begin to address the implications of her assumption. The rule of law depends upon a kind of universal presumption of innocence. Most obviously, defendants or accuseds like Assange are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But accusers are also presumed innocent, as is the state and the rule of law itself. The presumption of a defendant's innocence does not require a presumption of bias on the part of accuser or prosecutors. But Wypijewski's presumption of Assange's innocence depends almost entirely on presumptions of bias. The rule of law can't stand under that kind of presumption, and Wypijewski would seem to have bigger fish to fry than simply defending Assange's freedom. If bias has corrupted the rule of law, revolution would seem to be called for, and there actually is a revolutionary implication to Wypijewski's defense of Assange. Revolutions are almost by definition antinomian phenomena: the normal rules cannot apply and often no rules apply at all. Since Wypijewski has given us no idea of the circumstances under which she would demand that Assange submit to arrest, she may believe that the moment is here, and that Assange's mission places him above all law. If she does not believe this, then explaining what she does believe about his accountability would be a better subject for a subsequent column.

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