Julian Assange can't be allowed to hide behind the skirts of WikiLeaks to avoid answering rape allegations
Like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange is an incredibly divisive character. Just as Snowden is viewed by some as a hero for exposing the activities of the NSA, so Assange is viewed as a hero for exposing -- amongst other things -- the darker side of the US military through WikiLeaks. But both figures are also viewed as villains by those who believe that their whistleblowing has endangered national security.
While Snowden scampered off to Russia to avoid the US legal system, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. While it's certainly true that he's a man of interest for the US which ultimately seeks to prosecute him over the activities of WikiLeaks, Assange is actually holed up in the UK to escape extradition to Sweden where he faces questioning over allegations of rape. He has continually used the additional prospect of extradition to the US for WikiLeaks-related questioning as an excuse for not facing the music in Sweden. This is just about as wrong as it's possible to be.
Edward Snowden riled the US government with his exposé of NSA surveillance and he felt that this meant there was no way he would be able to receive a fair trial. Julian Assange has used a similar argument following his work with WikiLeaks. While both men's fears may be well-founded, Assange stands accused of the ultimate violation -- rape. There can simply be no excuse for not answering to these allegations.
In the last week, Assange's appeal to the United Nations went in his favor. The UN panel decided that his time in the Ecuadorean Embassy amounted to 'arbitrary detention'. Except it didn't. Over the course of the last several years, Assange has only been held against his will for a period of 10 days after having been arrested in London back in late 2010. He was then released on bail, but in 2012 when it was decided that he could be extradited to Sweden to face the rape allegations, he decided to seek 'political asylum' at Ecuador's embassy in London.
Despite anything Assange may say, he has been free to leave the embassy at any time since walking through its doors; he chose not to. He chose not to, presumably, because he would instantly have been arrested and carted off to Sweden. But that's not the story he's putting forward. He wants the world to feel that he has been detained. This is just utterly untrue.
It has been suggested that the rape allegations are completely false, having been fabricated simply to get Assange into the legal system so he can be handed over to the US to talk about WikiLeaks. This is likely a construct of the conspiracy theorists, but it doesn’t matter either way. Assange has been accused of rape. He needs to be seen to go through the relevant legal processes to either clear his name or receive the relevant punishment. Any talk of possible extradition to the US is being used as a smokescreen and a distraction -- the rape allegations need to be dealt with first and then, and only then, does the US/WikiLeaks side of the story come into play.
WikiLeaks has done some fabulous work exposing the nefarious activities of governments, militaries, individuals and companies around the world. For this -- and ignoring the fact that he is an utterly odious man (regardless of the veracity of rape allegations) -- Assange is to be applauded. Just like Snowden, he has brought to light important matters that the public needed to know about. But it shouldn't act as a get out of jail free card.
There is a possibility that Assange would, ultimately, be extradited from Sweden to the US. But it is a possibility rather than a certainty. He has already proved himself perfectly capable of evading justice, and there's no reason to think that he wouldn't be able to do this again. But if he is to be taken seriously, Assange needs to show that he is a man of principle and stop hiding behind the skirts of WikiLeaks.
Face the rape allegation and then fight US extradition. It's simple, really. If Assange can’t be seen to do the right thing, he is going to very quickly lose any support he has, and the good work WikiLeaks has achieved will be undone -- if not literally, then symbolically.