Julian Assange: The Six and a Half Million Pound Man

19 June 2014 — Hazel Press

On 19 June 2014 Julian Assange will have spent two years living within Ecuador’s London embassy. The summer of 2012 witnessed extraordinary scenes with the Metropolitan Police (Met) surrounding the embassy, issuing a “surrender notice” and carrying orders to arrest Assange “under all circumstances”. The UK government considered violating the Vienna Convention in order to “forcefully enter the Ecuadorian embassy” and Ecuador granted Assange diplomatic asylum.

While the threat to raid the embassy receded, the police presence remained. During the aborted raid (15 August) one hundred officers were deployed. The next day numbers fell to fifty, falling again to twenty the following day and then remaining at eight officers present at any one time for the next two years. In October 2012, London’s mayor Boris Johnson stated that the cost of police operations around the embassy between 20 June and 10 September had reached £905,000. According to a FOI request (PDF link) the cost from 19 June 2012 to 31 January 2013 was £2.9 million, or £12,832 per day.

A recent Daily Mail FOI request has revealed the long-term cost of the siege. It seems that by 19 June 2014 it will have reached £6,350,000 – or, to put it another way, it is costing UK taxpayers £3,175,000 per year.

There is some confusion as to precisely what this money is being spent on. Four teams of eight police officers, plus logistics, waiting to arrest Assange around-the-clock for two years should not cost more than £3,234,176 – which leaves £3,115,824 unaccounted for. That the Met has refused to release a “break down” of the policing costs “on national security grounds” adds to concerns that this money is being used to surveil the embassy.

With half of the stated police operations figure remaining unexplained and apparently related to “national security”, one is left wondering what the costs of other (British) interested parties are, specifically the MoD,  MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, and what they make of the whole affair. If the U.S. spy agencies diverted their 2012 “black budget” towards an “emergency response” to WikiLeaks, is it more than likely that UK agencies followed suit.

There are other costs to the UK stemming from Sweden’s unusual (PDF link) handling of the Assange case. Although the Crown Prosecution Service is yet to provide a final figure for the legal costs of the extradition bid, such cases generally cost British taxpayers £125,000. According to the European Parliament, a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) costs British taxpayers £20,170 to process. The Serco monitoring fees incurred during the 551 days Assange spent under house arrest comes to £7,240 and the nine days Assange spent in jail cost £900. Adding these figures to the policing expenses brings the total cost of the Swedish prosecution authority’s preference to extradite rather than question Assange in the UK to £6,503,310.

Sweden’s extradition decision and ongoing refusal to question Assange in the UK may well be based political concerns that are unrelated to the plight of a case that has already been dismissed once. Either way, the impasse has already dearly affected the people of the UK.

It has cost the British public 23,360 hours of “frontline policing” by diverting officers from their usual duties. How many crimes are solved or prevented over the course of 23,360 hours? How many Londoners have been harmed by the Swedish prosecution authority’s intransigence?

Not only are the resources of London’s police force being wasted at the embassy, but the cost of maintaining them there has potentially reduced police numbers annually by 110 officers. At a time of critical shortages of personnel, this sort of cavalier disregard for the safety of Londoners is criminal. 

Since the 2008 financial crisis, every public service in the UK has been cut back due to austerity. Rather than paying for the embassy siege, taxpayers could have contributed to the NHS receiving the resources needed for 4,536 days of intensive care coverage, or 120 new nurses, either of which would have reduced shortages. The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea could have been provided with 451 extra secondary school places, or employed 114 newly qualified teachers, either of which would have reduced shortages.

At roughly the same time that Marianne Ny (the Swedish prosecutor responsible for the Assange case), began to refuse to question Assange under the EU Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA), Swedish police travelled to Serbia to question Alexander Eriksson about the Västberga helicopter robbery. In 2011, police travelled to Poland to question a suspect about 69 missing cows and in 2012 they travelled to Serbia to question a man about the Uppsala murder case.

The Swedish Code of Judicial Procedure (Section 4, Chapter 23) states (PDF link):

The investigation should be conducted so that no person is unnecessarily exposed to suspicion, or put to unnecessary cost or inconvenience.

The preliminary investigation shall be conducted as expeditiously as possible. When there is no longer reason for pursuing the investigation, it shall be discontinued.

Not only has Assange clearly been “put to unnecessary cost or inconvenience”, but the UK has also been adversely affected. Equally clearly, the investigation has not been “conducted as expeditiously as possible”.

The most likely explanation for breaking the Procedural Code is that using an EAW to extradite and question avoids a UK judicial authority reviewing Ny’s evidence and judging (to UK standards) whether there are “reasonable grounds” for questioning, something that would happen under an MLA application. If a request to question under MLA was rejected by the UK, the case against Assange would likely collapse. Further, if the case against Assange is so weak that it cannot be tested in the UK, why is it being pursued in the face of such costs to the UK?

After cycling through a variety of excuses – during which time Sweden made about fifty MLA requests (PDF link) to the UK – Ny stated (February 2011) that she could not use MLA because “it is necessary to interrogate Assange in person”. However, as we have seen, this is not only covered by MLA (Section 4: Foreign Officers in the UK – PDF link), it is also regularly used by Swedish prosecutors. Ny then stated (March 2014) that: “there is a need, during interviews with Mr Assange, to be able to present, and question him about, the evidence that has emerged in the investigation to date..”, but besides testimony, which has been leaked to the public, the only other evidence is a torn condom handed to police by one of the complainants (12 days after the alleged incident) and found to contain absolutely no traces of chromosomal DNA. The forensic report on this condom was also leaked. All of this evidence is digital and there is no reason why Ny cannot present it during questioning. Three months later Ny changed her reasoning yet again, stating:

Clearly any follow-up enquiries can be swiftly conducted and further questioning resumed afterwards. Ny continues:

A case of this type would normally be expected to require further lines of inquiry e.g. the questioning of others involved. These new lines of inquiry would normally be performed in conjunction and simultaneously with the questioning of the suspect.

However, the Swedish Code of Judicial Procedure (Section 2 , Chapter 21) clearly states (PDF link) that it is for a court to decide “when the suspect is bound to appear in person”. Once again, Ny’s reasoning exposes an abuse of process. Furthermore, before a court can reach a decision on attendance, a “notice of prosecution” must be issued; and there are only fourteen months remaining before the notice period expires and the case must be dismissed. Recently, the UK extradition law has been reformed to require “a decision to charge” to be made before extradition proceedings can begin. If it were applied retroactively, Ny’s EAW would be invalidated. The pressure is growing on Sweden’s prosecution authority to either question, charge or dismiss the case.

Ecuador’s UK Ambassador Juan Falconi has stated that: “it’s as simple as the Sweden prosecutor questioning [Assange] at the embassy. Anyone from Sweden would be very welcome..”

It is a catch-22: if Ny accepts Ecuador’s invitation, as well as the danger of UK rejection, there is the possibility that the case will be dismissed for a second time – after all, it appears that progression is very much dependent on what Assange has to say – or Ny would have charged him in absentia years ago, and it is highly unlikely that Assange’s answers will assist Ny – at which point the inevitable investigations into the conduct of the Swedish police and prosecution will begin.

Marianne Ny has no reason not to question Assange and every reason never to question him. Of course, if Assange were extradited and held incommunicado in a Swedish remand prison before facing a trial held behind closed doors, the unwelcome possibilities mentioned above might be avoided. Especially if, regardless of the outcome of any part of the process, its end begins the delivery of Assange to U.S. authorities. Something that would certainly please some sections of Sweden and America’s polity.

The only other extradition case to cost UK taxpayers six millions pounds was that of Augusto Pinochet (October 1998). Inverse to the Assange case, the UK government paid for Pinochet’s police protection and legal fees (despite the fact that Pinochet was worth twenty-one million dollars). After the House of Lords (the UK’s highest court at the time) ruled that Pinochet could be extradited to Spain, the UK government’s (reciprocal) assistance then extended to allowing him to return to Chile on “compassionate” grounds. Nevertheless, important precedents (PDF link) were set.

The cases of Assange and Pinochet share something else in common that is quite revealing: the international arrest warrant (based on charges of genocide, murder, torture, and hostage taking) for Pinochet was issued by Baltasar Garzón; and Garzón is leading Assange’s legal team. Once again, the UK government will not be assisting him, but doing quite the opposite.

New legal proceedings aimed at removing Sweden’s extradition warrant are due to begin on 24 June. A part of this challenge is based on an amendment to Sweden’s Code of Judicial Procedure (30 April 2014) which states: “A person who is arrested or detained has the right to the facts underlying the decision to arrest or detain.” In yet another abuse of process, Marianne Ny has refused to disclose evidence.

Regardless of events in Sweden, the danger of extradition to the U.S. from the UK is currently too high for Assange to safely leave the embassy. And yet, there are significant advantages in challenging a U.S. extradition from London. It is one of the world’s legal and human rights hubs and has a notoriously fickle press that politicians loathe getting on the wrong side of. The UK public’s patience with the U.S. and the UK’s inept politicking has become thin enough to be noticed (PDF link). And as everyone knows, the one thing governments fear most is an audience deciding to participate. Amidst the UK’s atmosphere of discontent it may become prudent not to rattle the cages from the outside.

Time is on Assange’s side. Over the last two years, the instruments needed to overcome or deter a U.S. extradition bid have been gathered together. A widening circle of political allies stands ready to enter that fray, whilst continuing to apply pressure to the distortions of law (PDF link) and process that are often employed against Assange and WikiLeaks. Recently, the National Lawyers Guild and 58 other NGOs submitted a report to the UNHCR’s Universal Periodic Review detailing Sweden’s human rights and procedural violations in the Assange case. Freedom of the Press Foundation, Index on Censorship, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch and 56 other human rights NGOs have called on U.S. Department of Justice to close their WikiLeaks investigations. During this period, the frame in which WikiLeaks is perceived has shifted. It is no longer a matter of the shock of the new being kicked off the stage into a U.S. prison. What was once so startling has since (to varying degrees) been widely adopted. The value of WikiLeaks has been recognised and it is hard to imagine a world without it. At the same time, the revelations of Edward Snowden have focused attention on the imbalance between the interests of the state and the interests of the people. The world is changing and every counterpoint is needed to keep our future secure.

To that end, the work of WikiLeaks continues.

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