Sureties Hearing 3 October 2012 – address by Vaughan Smith

Sir, thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the court today. I have been asked by the eight other sureties to speak on their behalf as well as my own.

We appreciate that the court wants to know what the sureties may have privately or publicly done to encourage Mr. Assange to submit to the British police since he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy on 19th June.

As we know, this hearing descends from a lengthy extradition challenge in highly controversial circumstances that include attacks by senior U.S officials on Mr. Assange personally and the organization WikiLeaks. People throughout the country, indeed throughout the world, are divided about Mr. Assange’s work as a journalist and publisher and the various legal claims against him. This has stimulated valuable public debate and a very great deal of critical media attention – including from professional rivals of Mr. Assange.

Should I, or other sureties, publicly urge Mr. Assange to abandon the Ecuadorian Embassy it would undoubtedly be reported by the press in a manner either to discredit him, or to discredit us. It would undermine Mr. Assange but we don’t believe it would do anything to extract him from the Ecuadorian Embassy. It would certainly be a very public betrayal and in our view, importantly, it would also betray the public.

Yesterday, mindful of our responsibilities as sureties and concerned to establish the extent to which we truly are able to influence this matter, we visited Mr. Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Mr. Assange explained that the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had investigated and found that his fears of persecution by the United States and others were not unreasonable, granted him political asylum and formally found him to be a political refugee under Ecuadorian law and international conventions. He explained that as a result the Ecuadorian government had assumed its legal obligations to protect him and was not able to abandon these obligations.

Mr. Assange explained too that even since he was granted political asylum on August 19, the Pentagon had continued to make threats against him and his organisation. Only last Friday Pentagon spokesman George Little demanded through the U.S. based ABC News that WikiLeaks destroy its publications (1), including the Iraq War logs, which revealed the killings of over 100,000 civilians (2). Little said “continued possession by WikiLeaks of classified information belonging to the United States government represents a continuing violation of law” and was a “law enforcement matter”. The Pentagon also again “warned Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks” against “soliciting” material from U.S. military whistleblowers.

Mr. Assange told us that on the 30th June the U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd told AFP that its investigation into his organisation continues (3) and I have seen many media reports from the U.S. press this year which speak about litigation Mr. Assange and others have taken in relation to it. I have seen extracts of court records from earlier this year show that the FBI investigation against Mr. Assange’s organisation has reached at least 42,135 pages. (4)

I have examined both original press stories at ABC News and AFP and they agree with Mr. Assange’s statements.

Mr. Assange is convinced that he faces serious risks in U.S. custody and that it was necessary to apply for political asylum to a country that was not in a military relationship with the United States. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez has found that Mr. Assange’s alleged source, the young soldier Bradley Manning, has been kept in conditions formally amounting to torture (5).

We cannot know what the future holds for Mr. Assange with certainty, but we cannot disregard the risk to Mr. Assange should he leave the embassy; the risk that he may end up in the United States prison system under unjust conditions as a result. In the United States many senior figures have called for his assassination and demonized him as a terrorist or traitor. This question has been looked at by the Ecuadorian government whom have consequently awarded him asylum.

It was clear to us that the Ecuadorian government is negotiating with the Swedish and British authorities, looking for a solution. Only last Thursday William Hague and his Ecuadorian counterpart Mr. Ricardo Patiño formally met to discuss Mr. Assange’s situation at the United Nations General Assembly. The proposals being made seek to satisfy British legal requirements, by having Sweden finally agree to interviewing Mr. Assange outside of Sweden or by protecting Mr. Assange from extradition to the United States.

We are hopeful that these discussions will be fruitful. Mr. Assange expressed concern about the risk of forfeiture that the sureties face, however it was clear from our visit that sureties do not have the power to meaningfully intervene in this matter. This has become a matter between the Ecuadorian, British, Swedish, U.S. and Australian governments.

The sureties have put a huge amount of effort over an unexpectedly long period to support the legal process.

Mr. Assange stayed with my family for 13 months. Along with my parents we worked tirelessly to ensure that Mr. Assange was able to comply with his bail conditions and attended court as required.

Mr. Assange does not have a UK driving license but had to report to a local police station daily as part of his bail conditions, for over 550 days. During the almost 400 days that he that he stayed with us the burden of complying with the court’s rigorous conditions of driving him to the police station to comply fell on my family and two other sureties, Joseph Farrell and Sarah Harrison.

My experience is similar to that of Ms. Saunders, who hosted Mr. Assange after my family did. We cannot believe that this does not argue against forfeiture. We worked very hard indeed to make this work.

It is very difficult to see how we could have prevented Mr. Assange from seeking political asylum in London. Mr. Assange says he did not tell us of his decision because to do so would have placed us in legal difficulty. We could not have expected it. Such a thing is unprecedented for a surety.

We understand that this court wants to focus on the Swedish extradition against Mr. Assange, but we as sureties, who have acted out of principle to release Mr. Assange from prison, cannot honestly ignore the wider aspects of Mr. Assange’s position, including his status as a political refugee.

The British government decided not to enter the Ecuadorian embassy after 19 June to apprehend Mr. Assange, though he informed them immediately that he was there. British law cannot, or chooses not to, reach Julian Assange and there are very many in the world, and this country, who think that it shouldn’t be able to.

The fact is that Mr. Assange has secured sanctuary as a political refugee in a country with which Great Britain has an established and normal diplomatic relationship.

How can this fact have no legal standing? Britain appears to recognize many U.N. and E.U. rights concerning asylum, refugees, political persecution and diplomacy. Everyone has the right to apply for asylum. What flows from these rights, in relation to Mr. Assange is still being discussed at a diplomatic level and may end up in the international courts. As sureties we can’t understand all this, but we do understand the situation is complex and there are risks to Mr. Assange’s welfare.

We believe that everybody in this court and indeed all of the sureties who may not be here today, are all convinced that they have done and are doing the right thing. We don’t see how justice is served by punishing us for having done our best to serve the public interest in this complex and challenging case.

We submit that the sureties are wholly blameless, that we have worked assiduously to help Mr. Assange to meet the requirements of the court.

We all want Mr. Assange to be able can clear his name and have done everything with our diminishing influence to see the current impasse resolved and justice served.

We never envisaged when we agreed to become sureties that the matter would become a diplomatic argument and it is clear that this needs to be resolved at a governmental level.

We request that sureties in this case be treated gracefully, in a manner that reflects the impossible position that we are in.

In this unique, this quite exceptional case, complying with what this court seems to expect from us; to all publicly urge Mr. Assange to abandon the sanctuary that he has found in the Ecuadorian Embassy, would see us acting against a man whom we and others judge to have understandable fears about his ultimate treatment in the United States if he abandons his asylum.

That would render us mercenary and contemptible individuals of great weakness of character. It cannot be the right thing for us to do.