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Arrest of Julian Assange

Volume 658: debated on Thursday 11 April 2019

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the arrest of Julian Assange.

This morning, after nearly seven years inside the Ecuadorean embassy, Mr Assange was arrested for failing to surrender in relation to his extradition proceedings. He was later also served with a warrant for provisional arrest, pending receipt of a request for extradition to stand trial in the United States on charges relating to computer offences. His arrest follows a decision by the Ecuadorean Government to bring to an end his presence inside its embassy in London. I am pleased that President Moreno has taken this decision and I extend the UK’s thanks to him for resolving the situation. Ecuador’s actions recognise that the UK’s criminal justice system is one in which rights are protected and in which, contrary to what Mr. Assange and his supporters may claim, he and his legitimate interests will be protected. This also reflects the improvements to the UK’s relationship with Ecuador under the Government of President Moreno. These are a credit to the leadership of the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), and to the ongoing hard work of Foreign Office officials in London and Quito.

Mr Assange was informed of the decision to bring his presence in the embassy to an end by the Ecuadorean ambassador this morning shortly before 10 am. The Metropolitan police entered the embassy for the purpose of arresting and removing him. All the police’s activities were carried out pursuant to a formal written invitation signed by the Ecuadorean ambassador and in accordance with the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Metropolitan police for the professionalism they have shown in their management of the immediate situation, and during the past seven years.

Both the UK Government and the Ecuadorean Government have become increasingly concerned about the state of Mr Assange’s health. The first action of the police following his arrest was to have him medically assessed and deemed fit to detain. The Ecuadoreans have made their best efforts to ensure that doctors, chosen by him, have had access inside the embassy. While he remains in custody in the UK, we are now in a position to ensure access to all necessary medical care and facilities.

Proceedings will now begin according to the courts’ timetable. Under UK law, following a provisional arrest, the full extradition papers must be received by the judge within 65 days. A full extradition request would have to be certified by the Home Office before being submitted to the court, after which extradition proceedings would begin. At that point, the decision as to whether any statutory bars to extradition apply would be for the UK’s courts to determine.

I will go no further in discussing the details of the accusations against Mr. Assange either in the UK’s criminal justice system or in the US, but I am pleased that the situation in the Ecuadorean embassy has finally been brought to an end. Mr Assange will now have the opportunity to contest the charge against him in open court and to have any extradition request considered by the judiciary. It is right that we implement the judicial process fairly and consistently, with due respect for equality before the law. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for his account of events. On the Labour Benches, we are glad that Julian Assange will be able to access medical care, treatment and facilities, because there have been worrying reports about his ill health. Of course, at this point that is all a matter for the courts.

We in the Opposition want to make the point that, even though the only charge that Julian Assange may face in this country is in relation to his bail hearings, the reason we are debating this this afternoon is entirely to do with his and WikiLeaks’ whistleblowing activities. These whistleblowing activities about illegal wars, mass murder, murder of civilians and corruption on a grand scale have put Julian Assange in the crosshairs of the US Administration. For this reason, they have once more issued an extradition warrant against Mr Assange.

The Home Secretary will know that Mr Assange complained to the UN that he was being unlawfully detained as he could not leave the Ecuadorian embassy without being arrested. In February 2016, the UN panel ruled in his favour, stating that he had been arbitrarily detained and that he should be allowed to walk free and compensated for his “deprivation of liberty”. Mr Assange hailed that as a significant victory and called the decision binding, but the Foreign Office responded by saying that this ruling “changes nothing”. I note that the Foreign Office responded then, not the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice. The Foreign Office has no responsibility for imprisonment and extradition in this country, but it is interested, of course, in relations with allies and others.

We have precedent in this country in relation to requests for extradition to the US, when the US authorities raise issues of hacking and national security. I remind the House of the case of Gary McKinnon. In October 2012, when the current Prime Minister was Home Secretary, an extradition request very similar to this one was refused. We should recall what WikiLeaks disclosed. Who can forget the Pentagon video footage of a missile attack in 2007 in Iraq that killed 18 civilians and two Reuters journalists? The monumental number of such leaks lifted the veil on US-led military operations in a variety of theatres, none of which has produced a favourable outcome for the people of those countries. Julian Assange is being pursued not to protect US national security, but because he has exposed wrongdoing by US Administrations and their military forces.

We only have to look at the treatment of Chelsea Manning to see what awaits Julian Assange if he is extradited to the US. Ms Manning has already been incarcerated, between 2010 and 2017. She was originally sentenced to 35 years. Her indefinite detention now is because she refuses to participate in partial disclosure, which would allow whistleblowers to be pursued and not the perpetrators. Her human rights and protections as a transgender woman have been completely ignored—[Interruption.] Her human rights as a transgender woman have been completely ignored, and I hope that Government Members will take that seriously.

What this has to do with Julian Assange’s case is that this could be the type of treatment he could expect if he is extradited to the US. In this country, we have protections for whistleblowers, including the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and others—even if some of us feel that these protections should be more robust. Underpinning this legislation is the correct premise, not that anyone can leak anything they like but that protection should be afforded to those who take a personal risk to disclose wrongdoing where that disclosure serves the public interest. Julian Assange is at risk of extradition to the US precisely because, as we in the Opposition believe, he has exposed material that is in the utmost public interest.

This is now in the hands of the British law courts. We have the utmost confidence in the British legal system, but we in the Opposition would be very concerned, on the basis of what we know, about Julian Assange being extradited to the US.

First, I thank the right hon. Lady for her response, but I think the whole country, if people listen to her response, will be pretty astounded by the tone that she has taken. She started by talking about the reason for Mr Assange’s arrest and tried to come up with all sorts of justifications, which have nothing to do with the reason. The reason Mr Assange has been arrested is that he failed to surrender to a UK court—that is why he has been arrested. There was a provisional arrest warrant, which is subject to extradition proceedings. Those are usual procedures under UK law. There is no one in this country who is above the law. The right hon. Lady who, we should remember, wants to be the Home Secretary, is suggesting that we should not apply the rule of law to an individual.

The right hon. Lady is disagreeing, but she said quite clearly that Mr Assange should not be subject to UK law, and that is something that should worry any British citizen, should she ever become Home Secretary.

The right hon. Lady can intervene later if you allow her, Mr Speaker—that is possible. However, I want to finish my comments in response to hers.

The right hon. Lady also talked about the UN, as though the UN had some opinion on this issue. I am sure it was not intentional, but she was at risk of not giving quite correct information, because the UN has no view on the Assange case. I think she was actually referring to the view of a group of independent persons who decided to look at this case. They do not speak for the UN in any way whatever. It was a small group of individuals who came up with a deeply flawed opinion, suggesting that somehow Mr Assange was indefinitely detained in the UK by the British authorities. In fact, the only person responsible for Mr Assange’s detention is himself—it was entirely self-inflicted. It is astonishing that the right hon. Lady should even bring up that report and suggest that, somehow, it was a UN view or a UN report.

Then the right hon. Lady talked about the US request for extradition. I will not be drawn into the request for extradition; it is rightly a matter for the courts. Should the courts deem it correct and necessary at some point to send a request for extradition to me, I will consider it appropriately under our laws.

I note that the shadow Home Secretary, both today and in the past—and indeed the Leader of the Opposition —have defended Assange and WikiLeaks from efforts to tackle their illegal activity. They could have clarified things today for the British public; the right hon. Lady could have done that on behalf of the Opposition, but she did not. Why is it that, whenever someone has a track record of undermining the UK and our allies and the values we stand for, you can almost guarantee that the leadership of the Labour party will support those who intend to do us harm? You can always guarantee that from the party opposite.

How much has the police operation guarding the embassy cost, and is there any prospect of recovering any of this money—perhaps from Mr Assange’s celebrity backers?

That is an interesting suggestion from my right hon. Friend as regards cost recovery. Up to 2015—the figures I have are for up to 2015—the police operation cost an estimated £13.2 million.

I too thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I am sure his swift actions and determination to appear before the House have not been lost on his audience on the Tory Back Benches.

It is right that nobody is above the law, and in many ways today’s actions mean that at least one kind of deadlock has been broken, which is perhaps important, at least from a health and wellbeing point of view. However, at the same time human rights under the law are inviolable, and the treatment Mr Assange receives in the period to come must take place with appropriate due process and with respect to the protection of the rights that the Home Secretary stressed.

Will the Home Secretary therefore confirm that nobody should be extradited from the United Kingdom if they face an unfair trial or a cruel and unusual punishment in the destination country? Will he also assure us that any judicial process here in the United Kingdom will be carried out with as much transparency as possible, and with all appropriate opportunity for review and appeal, as necessary?

I am very happy to agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. This country has a long and proud tradition of human rights. When it comes to extradition requests, wherever they may come from, it is absolutely right that the courts and the Government consider an individual’s human rights.

And so this story moves to its conclusion, having cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds, and having ruined relations between Ecuador and the United Kingdom during the period concerned. I very much hope that those relations can now be sustained and nurtured.

Let me make two points. We should not allow Mr Assange to get away with the idea that he was arbitrarily detained, which is ridiculous given that he could have walked out of that door at any time, or the idea that he had no charges to answer originally in Sweden, because the Swedish prosecutor would have needed to interview him personally, which he never allowed her to do. Those two facts need to be put right in the middle of this ridiculous story.

My right hon. Friend has made a number of important points. He referred to our relationship with Ecuador, which is very good, as I think today’s outcome shows. Let me repeat that it is thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas that that relationship is so strong today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) was absolutely right to remind the House that this was a self-inflicted detention. This was a decision by Mr Assange to lock himself up for seven years.

I am pleased that the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) mentioned Sweden, because the Home Secretary did not. He did not mention the fact that proceedings there led, as I understand it, to the original issuing of the warrant. Will those Swedish proceedings continue, and if there is any competitive aspect between the Swedish prosecution and the United States prosecution, how will it be resolved?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the original extradition request was a Swedish request, but at a later date the Swedish authorities chose to withdraw it. Whether there is an existing or a new Swedish request I can neither confirm nor deny. Should there be more than one request for the extradition of any individual, that will be dealt with in the usual way by the courts.

I understand that the potential extradition to the United States relates to the half a million leaked documents in the Chelsea Manning case. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is potentially a more serious and disturbing case against Julian Assange in relation to his and WikiLeaks’ role in the Kremlin’s 2016 attempts to interfere with and manipulate the United States presidential elections, when WikiLeaks was used by Russian military intelligence—the GRU—as the primary vehicle to disseminate stolen documents, hacked by the GRU from the Democratic party? While some see him as an information war hero, others see him as a useful stooge of an authoritarian state.

I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me to refer to any accusations that may or may not be made against Mr Assange. I understand that he has talked about this issue on a number of occasions, including today, on “The World at One”. He is very articulate, and I am sure that many people will have heard him.

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. Clearly today’s arrest was correct, but looking ahead will he confirm that any extradition request from the United States will be considered by the Home Office, that that will include public interest test and press freedom considerations, and that any court hearing an extradition case would also be able to consider a public interest test and a press freedom defence?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for today’s action. In the first instance, the extradition request is a matter for the courts. Once a full extradition request is received, my Department will determine whether it is certifiable, but after that it will go to the courts, which will have to make the initial decisions according to our law.

Julian Assange says, apparently, that his personal space has been violated. That is a bit rich, in view of the number of people who have been put in extreme danger among our allies.

It may be appropriate for me to draw attention to the statement made today by President Moreno of Ecuador. He said that

“the discourteous and aggressive behaviour of Mr Julian Assange”

had led to his action. That tells us something in itself.

I am concerned that a man suspected of rape, which is what in this case actually happened, was able to do what he did for several years to escape justice. I have seen media reports that lawyers for the victims in Sweden are taking steps to start the proceedings off again. I wonder whether the Home Secretary might be able to investigate that and let the House know. I am sure that many Members of Parliament are very anxious about the matter.

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. It would be inappropriate for me to talk about any accusations that have been made, whether from Sweden or elsewhere, against Mr Assange. She may want to reflect on the words that were used by her Front-Bench colleague. On 7 December 2010 the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) openly tweeted her support for Mr Assange. The hon. Lady might like to reflect on the leadership that she is receiving from her own Front Bench.

The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) is right to praise press freedom, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is an advocate for that, but whatever the shadow Home Secretary says, is it not the case that responsible journalists do not play fast and loose with the national interest and put our people in danger?

My hon. Friend, a distinguished former journalist himself, is right in what he says. Press freedom in this country is sacrosanct, but by and large people who work in the press in this country are responsible.

I find it extraordinary that someone so rich and powerful—or powerful, anyway—can avoid an allegation of rape in the way that Julian Assange has for so many years, costing so much taxpayers’ money. Who is paying the £13.2 million bill that Julian Assange has cost us? Is it the people of London in cuts to their police service, or does it come from a central budget?

I understand very much the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment; he speaks for many people across the House. He asks who has paid the bill. I referred earlier to the £13.2 million up to 2015. It has come from various sources, but each one is the British taxpayers, and that is why they will welcome the justice that has been done today.

It is right and proper that my right hon. Friend has paid tribute to the Minister for Europe and the Americas for the work that he has done. It is also appropriate to pay tribute to the strength, resilience and patience of the British diplomatic service.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. In particular I would pick out the British ambassador in Ecuador, who has been brilliant in the way she has pursued this and worked with her counterparts in Ecuador, Ecuadorean Ministers and others, as well as Ministers in the Foreign Office.

I join my right hon. Friend in sending our gratitude to President Moreno for his decision. Does he agree that it is right that Mr Assange will now face justice, and that he will do so in the proper way, with the proper protections of the British legal system?

I can absolutely give that assurance to my hon. Friend. Today is a good day for justice. The British legal system, our defence of the rule of law and the fairness of our legal system are world-renowned, and that is exactly what Mr Assange will receive.

I join hon. Members in thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement and the Metropolitan police for their effective action this morning. The Ecuadorean President has indicated that Julian Assange repeatedly violated the conditions of his asylum at the embassy. Does my right hon. Friend have any further details of such violations?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking the Metropolitan police, who for many years have done an outstanding job, for making sure that Mr Assange was arrested and presented in front of the courts. He asks me about the Ecuadorean Government. I might point his attention to the statement that President Moreno has made today in a video message. He talked about how Mr Assange was discourteous and aggressive. He made a number of accusations against Mr Assange, which were one of the reasons why the President decided, as a sovereign decision of the Ecuadorean state, to remove what they call diplomatic asylum.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance in respect of a matter that arose earlier today at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions. It concerns comments you made, Mr Speaker, about the planning application in my constituency for the development of a beautiful, unspoilt part of countryside at Park of Keir.

Mr Speaker, you rightly take every opportunity to praise Judy Murray, who I know you fully respect and admire, and you rightly identified her as one of the sponsors of the proposed Park of Keir development. How can I make it clear for the record that there is a substantial body of opinion in Dunblane and Bridge of Allan among my constituents who want there to be a legacy for Andy and Jamie Murray in the Stirling area but do not want this piece of glorious countryside to be developed for that or any other purpose?

The hon. Gentleman has found his own salvation, and he has done so with very good grace and an admirable sense of humour in relation to what is a serious matter. He is doing his constituency duty as he judges it right.

Look, I completely respect the fact that there are different points of view about the matter. I did express public support for Judy Murray and Park of Keir some considerable time ago, and I reiterated it. The hon. Gentleman has made his own point in his own way, and I recognise immediately that he also speaks for many other people. He has put that on the record in a perfectly proper way, and I think we can both honourably leave it there.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Monday, you kindly granted an urgent question when medical cannabis was confiscated from a child as she entered the UK from Holland. I can tell the House today that a prescription has been issued for medical cannabis so that young girl can have the medication she needs. Sadly, at the moment there is still a blockage. With the Home Secretary on the Front Bench—I know he is working tirelessly to help us—I wonder whether the lifting of that blockage, to allow the prescription to be honoured, has yet to be done.

Well—this is usually used pejoratively, but I say it in a non-pejorative sense—the right hon. Gentleman has opportunistically taken the chance to raise a point of order in the full knowledge of the presence of the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary is not obliged to respond, but he looks as though he wishes to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am happy to respond. It is perfectly proper that my right hon. Friend has raised this really important issue, and he was right to do so earlier this week as well. The Home Office has been working with the Department of Health and Social Care, which is the Department responsible for issuing licences since the prohibition was lifted. We will continue to work carefully, and we will make sure that it can be done as soon as possible.

Perhaps I could be forgiven for saying, in the gentlest and most understated of spirits, that having known the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) for a good many years, the sooner that interdepartmental co-operation is brought to a successful conclusion, the better. If that is not the case, I think I can confidently predict that the right hon. Gentleman, quite properly, will go on and on and on about the matter.

And on, because he is a persistent terrier of a parliamentarian. That UQ served an important public purpose, and the right hon. Gentleman deserves great credit for bringing it to the House.

Yes. [Interruption.] It has been suggested that the right hon. Gentleman is more a persistent Rottweiler than a persistent terrier.

Or a bloodhound. Okay, we have pursued this matter to destruction for now. I am glad the House is in a good spirit.

Bill Presented

Legal Tender (Scottish Banknotes) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Alistair Carmichael presented a Bill to make provision about the acceptance of Scottish banknotes throughout the United Kingdom; to oblige businesses and companies to accept Scottish banknotes as payment; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 379).

Adjournment (Easter)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 25)

That this House, at its rising today, do adjourn until Tuesday 23 April 2019.—(Wendy Morton.)

Question agreed to.