Andrew Tettenborn

Julian Assange and the deep flaw in our extradition laws

Julian Assange in a police van, 2019 (photo: Getty)

You could almost hear the rejoicing in Whitehall on Friday morning when the High Court cleared the way for Julian Assange to be extradited to the US, rejecting a plea that he was too mentally frail. The man has, after all, been a thorn in the administration’s side for 11 years: 18 months contesting his rendition to Sweden, followed by seven embarrassing years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, and then two-and-a-half years in Belmarsh fighting extradition to the US on espionage charges.

But there is one disquieting feature. The offences he is charged with in the US are not ordinary charges of criminality, like the accusations he faced in Sweden, but are essentially state crimes: in this case espionage and the betrayal of US state secrets. Should we be giving our aid to other countries to enforce such laws?

When a regular system of extradition was introduced in Britain in 1870, it was regarded as axiomatic that the answer to this question had to be ‘No’. However willing we might be to cooperate with other countries in the suppression of ordinary crime, when it came to the dirty work of prosecuting subversion and state offences in their own back yard we refused to lift a finger to aid them. Not only did the 1870 law give the Home Secretary a final veto over any extradition; it positively forbade extradition for any offence ‘of a political character’.

Should we be giving our aid to other countries enforcing state crimes?

Two factors put an end to this humane regime. One was that it could help terrorists, as quickly became apparent after 1870. In 1890, for example, there was the cause célèbre of Angelo Castioni. A political activist, 1871 Paris commune veteran and upmarket Chelsea sculptor (he reputedly helped carve Princess Louise’s statue of Queen Victoria in Kensington Gardens), he showed his radicalism when on a visit to his native Switzerland he shot dead in cold blood a politician opposed to his ideas.

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