The Sheer Awfulness of Julian Assange

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Julian Assange gave an interview to the BBC yesterday – available here – which I commend to readers; it’s only 10 minutes long. Assange has of course had a long history of Messianic self-victimization and refusing to submit to legal process in Sweden and the UK on charges of sexual assault. I won’t even go into the momentous irony of a supposed champion for the freedom of speech taking refuge in the embassy of a country whose regime is generally not regarded as being very friendly to said freedom, or indeed of that country criticising the UK as imperialist whilst simultaneously violating the UK’s sovereignty by unlawfully harbouring a fugitive from justice. But while this BBC interview is a continuation of a long tradition on his part, I must say that until I had watched it I had not realized just how absolutely awful and cringe-worthy Assange is as a human being – he was not simply uncivil to the unfortunate BBC journalist interviewing him (herself admittedly not say an Edward R. Murrow), but was a first rate, frothing at the mouth kind of bully. His frequently completely uncritical supporters may want to take note.

My favourite moment in the interview comes at about 3:35 when he says, apparently as conclusive evidence that the UK Supreme Court decision dismissing his appeal against extradition to Sweden was completely wrong, that ‘in two academic articles [holding up two fingers] the Cambridge International Law Journal has condemned the findings of the Supreme Court.’ He is in fact referring to these two blog posts by Tiina Pajuste and Cameron Miles (both of which I recommend, who are rightly critical of the Court’s application of Art. 31(3)(b) VCLT) on the website of the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law (on whose academic review board I happily sit, in the spirit of full disclosure). Now how adorable is that? Abscoding from the law on the pretext that the decision of the highest court in the land was criticized in a blog post or two. I see much potential here!

(For our previous coverage of the Assange saga and the analysis of the pertinent legal issues readers can click on ‘Diplomatic Asylum’ in the categories tab below).

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Joost says

December 1, 2012

Dear Marko,

Why did you censor my earlier comment? I thought it was just as offensive as yours.

Warm regards,


Marko Milanovic says

December 1, 2012

Dear Joost,

(1) My post is not in any way offensive along national or ethnic lines, although it does contain an unflattering estimation of Mr Assange's character, by which it is certainly not unique; (2) Your comment was offensive along national or ethnic lines, and I deleted it for that reason; (3) Any further comments along such lines, or any similar incivility on your part towards me or to anyone else on this blog will have as a consequence the immediate suspension of your commenting privileges. I hope that's clear.

Joost says

December 1, 2012

Understood. Just to make it clear, I'm dutch.

Marilia says

December 1, 2012

"refusing to submit to legal process in Sweden and the UK on charges of sexual assault". this is supposed to be a law journal and you say, falsely, that Mr. Assange has been charged. This makes quite a difference, no? Perhaps as a law journal you should be defending a person's right to seek (and obtain) asylum from political persecution. perhaps you should write a post about the extrajudicial financial blockade against wikileaks. Perhaps you should write about when senior US officials and media pundits suggest Assange should be assassinated, executed, by drone strike, outside of the law. Ad hominem attacks on a persecuted journalist who has not been charged of any crime - this is what your blogpost is about.

I'll be surprised if you do not censor my comment.

Marko Milanovic says

December 1, 2012


I guess you've been surprised. This is, in fact, a blog of an eminent law journal, and normally people who are not legal experts should not presume to lecture those who are about what the law is or is not. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, for astronomers, physicists, engineers, doctors, or veterinarians or any other area in which expertise rationally trumps emotional personal opinion. Julian Assange is being sought on reasonable suspicion that he committed a crime. Whether he has been 'charged' depends on how you define a 'charge'; the problem here is that different legal systems use different concepts, and the Swedish one does not use the concept of a 'charge' in the same way in which the English one does. An arrest warrant has been issued against Assange in Sweden, and that warrant has been confirmed by Swedish courts. It may be your opinion that he is the victim of political persecution, but neither Swedish nor English courts thought so. If you care about how Swedish law looks at Assange's position from the standpoint of their own criminal procedure, you can look at para. 142 of the English High Court judgment in his case, quoting the Swedish prosecutor's explanation that a formal indictment against Assange can only be filed once he has been arrested and questioned, upon the conclusion of the investigation as a preliminary part of Swedish criminal procedure. The High Court concluded, at para. 153, that 'there can be no doubt that if what Mr Assange had done had been done in England and Wales, he would have been charged and thus criminal proceedings would have been commenced' while from the standpoint of Swedish law 'criminal proceedings have commenced against Mr Assange.'

So there. On a different note, my post about Assange definitely was ad hominem, in that it assessed his personal character and found him to be somewhere in the nether regions of the human spectrum. It was, in other words, ad hominem by definition, but it wasn't a fallacy. It was rather based on evidence - the interview he himself gave and his behaviour during this interview that no decent human being would find acceptable. You may find this an instructive read with regard to what constitutes a fallacious ad hominem argument and what does not:

Stjärna Frånfälle says

December 1, 2012

Firstly, "Charges have not yet been brought against Mr Assange."

Secondly, What is you opinion regarding the Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) Letter of Request (LOR), in relation to the denied London interview; in terms of the potential for disclosure of the LOR and the problems of exposure of abuse of process for the prosecution?

Marko Milanovic says

December 2, 2012


On your first point, see my comment above. Sweden does not use the concept of 'charge' in the same way in which the English criminal system does, in which it comes very early in the process. Rather, it uses an indictment which comes at the end of the formal investigation, which is still ongoing, and is very quickly followed by the trial itself. So Assange hasn't been charged in the English sense, as this is not what Sweden does, nor has he been indicted in the Swedish sense, because he needs to be arrested and questioned first. But he is in the same position as a person charged in the English system, i.e. he is being sought on the reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime. He is not being sought merely because the Swedish authorities want to talk to him.

As for your second point, I happily don't have an opinion on the matter, except to say that persons sought on the reasonable suspicion of having committed a criminal offense don't generally decide for themselves how, where and when they will be questioned, and that it is in the courts, not on the internet, where various factual and legal issues are to be tested in an adversarial legal process. Mr Assange certainly had that opportunity before English courts, where he was represented by able counsel, and he will have the opportunity to raise whatever procedural irregularities before Swedish courts too, when the time for that comes.

John Bates says

December 3, 2012

Marko - of course the interview was framed in a very objective and balances way wasn't it (just as the charges or)? Or should we naively assume that we live in Utopia where politics never pervades justice or the BBC and the questioning was completely impartial and therefore should not have solicited such responses?

Pavel Caban says

December 4, 2012

Dear Mr. Milanović,

Your posts on this blog are my favourite ones (together with those by D. Akande), almost every time very thoughtful and elucidating. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of this post. The added value of it is the reference to the interview and two blog posts on CILJ. Apart from that, it is in my opinion, utterly one-sided, lacking any at least sound attempt to analyze the issue (the interview and its circumstances) and, above all, unacceptably offensive towards Mr. Assange.

With all due respect,

Pavel Caban

P.S.: If you "committed" anything like "Wikileaks" hurting the most powerful state at its heart, you wouldn't be afraid of and maybe too suspicious concerning various possibilities of being extradited to the US? Would you be able to differentiate between article and blog post? You wouldn't be upset and raise two fingers in an interview with the BBC? Well, if so, then please let me inform you that most of the regular, ordinary people would behave like Mr. Assange.

Marko Milanovic says

December 4, 2012

Dear Pavel,

Sorry to hear you did not like the post. Briefly, in response, I don't see anything in the behaviour of the BBC journalist that would remotely justify Assange's own behaviour. Do you? Did she ask any question that could reasonably be thought of as illegitimate? Which one? If anything, she gave him far more freedom to use the interview as a bully pulpit than she should have.

As for your broader point, I think one can reasonably believe BOTH that Julian Assange generally did a good thing, in the public interest, through Wikileaks, AND that he should stand trial in Sweden on reasonable suspicion of having committed rape and other forms of sexual assault. The same person could both be a champion for free expression and a rapist; one logically does not exclude the other. Whether he has a sound basis for fearing that the US might be out to get him (he does) similarly doesn't mean that he can unilaterally refuse to submit to the judicial authorities of the UK and Sweden, because in his own estimation they are somehow part of a broader conspiracy. And that is what the BBC journalist was trying to get to in her very first question, and was absolutely right in doing so. Note of course that as a purely legal matter Assange's fight against his extradition to Sweden makes no sense if its only purpose is to avoid any possible extradition to the US (which remains a hypothetical issue only at this time). Sweden does not extradite people to the US any more easily than does the UK, and (if I am not mistaken) if Assange is sent to Sweden on the basis of an EAW any extradition to the US would require the consent of both Sweden and the UK as the sending state, so it would be even more difficult. In short, one can (very) reasonably think that Assange is using his mantle as a crusader for whistleblowing to deflect completely unrelated charges against him, for which he may well be guilty.

Finally, my point about the two fingers and the CJICL was about how utterly preposterous that argument was, and it would have been equally preposterous even if the articles in question were not blog posts but were say published in the EJIL by James Crawford. The fact that an academic criticizes a judicial decision is no justification for breaking bail, absconding to a foreign embassy, and then complaining that the embassy is surrounded by UK police who want to arrest him if he tries to leave to a hospital in a fit of coughing. Please.

Pavel Caban says

December 7, 2012

Dear Marko,

Thank you for your reply. I would say that Mr. Assange’s behaviour can be very well justified, or at least explained or understood, by the overwhelming pressure under which he is living. I am not sure whether we can imagine what it is like to be regarded as the most wanted man by the most powerful state in the world. In addition to that, spending months in one room without the possibility of leaving the house doesn’t help in keeping one’s emotional fitness. That’s why I regarded the remarks towards Mr. Assange offensive.

The same remark is, in my opinion, valid with regard to the legal issue of extradition. I definitely agree that one can reasonably believe both that Julian Assange generally did a good thing through Wikileaks, and that at the same time he should stand trial in Sweden. But this is a purely “normative approach” which is blind to the real life and real situation. Under existing circumstances - enormous pressure (see above) as well as the circumstances of “the rape” (of course I don’t know what exactly happened in Sweden, but according to what I read about the case, including the testimonies of the victims of “the rape” (see for example here -, here -, and here -, to call Mr. Assange a rapist is really far-fetched, incorrect and offensive, at least from the common sense point of view (as a lawyer, I have to add - before the court decides otherwise).

To sum up, I am afraid that if I were at Mr. Assange’s place, I would stay at the embassy as well and would be convinced that I am doing the right thing.

Matthias says

December 11, 2012

Thanks for drawing attention to this video, Marko.

'...until I had watched it I had not realized just how absolutely awful and cringe-worthy Assange is as a human being – he was not simply uncivil to the unfortunate BBC journalist interviewing him (herself admittedly not say an Edward R. Murrow), but was a first rate, frothing at the mouth kind of bully.'

I guess confinement, stress and constant media vilification can do that to even anyone, even more so to someone already prone to be defensive/paranoid. Combine that with an interviewer who really mismanaged the interview, and you get this 10-minute angry exchange.

I'm not quite sure who the bully here was, though. It is very important to frame questions carefully in such an interview, and I think that the interviewer did a terrible job at that: her questions were quite biased, and her rejoinders even more so.

Her first question was this: "You are facing sexual charges in Sweden, and yet you portray yourself very much as a defender of freedom of speech. However the two issues are unrelated, aren't they?", followed by a frown.

Why does she use '...and yet' in the first phrase, and 'However..., aren't they?' in the second? She could just as easily asked the same question in a neutral manner ('You oppose Sweden's request for extradition on the ground that this is a ploy to silence you. However, you can agree that your status in wikileaks and sexual charges leveled against you are unrelated?). To that he could have simply responded 'no' and that's that.

Her suggestion that he just go to Sweden and 'face the music' is also quite shocking to me. I guess the BBC must also have asked that question to Chen Guangcheng when he was in the US embassy in China. The point is that if you give any credibility to Mr. Guangcheng, or if you lack faith in Chinese institutions, you are quite right to support Chen's choice not to leave the embassy and 'face the music' in China. I think that many observers are suspicious of these Swedish charges, suspicious of the USA's treatment of wikileaks and give Assange a modicum of credibility, and hence react in the same way. To me it is appalling that anyone ask a refugee to just submit to the government from which he or she is fleeing.

Finally, I think the interviewer's dismissal of the UN Rapporteur's report on Bradley Manning by simply quoting back the Pentagon's legal counsel both totally unnecessary and also highly suspicious. Rather than coming across as a fair journalist, she does indeed sound like a mouthpiece for government. To say Assange is 'making serious allegations' against the US (when it is the report of the UN Special Rapporteur that contains these assertions), and then claiming that she had a duty to 'not allow his comments to go unchallenged' seems really quite partisan. Again, I am sure that the BBC usually faces allegations of torture in Syria, Russia or China with the same balanced approached, by recalling 'for fairness' sake' what the Ministers of Defense of those countries have said in their defense.

She then toes the US line by saying that Mendez was offered access to Bradley Manning and had declined, apparently oblivious to the fact that the refusal was based on the following reasoning: "The US Government authorized the visit but ascertained that it could not ensure that the conversation would not be monitored. Since a non-private conversation with an inmate would violate the terms of reference applied universally in fact-finding by Special Procedures, the Special Rapporteur had to decline the invitation.". But then again, that would have been too much information for BBC viewers I guess.

So all in all a pretty unfortunate interview, but I don't lay the blame so squarely on Assange's shoulders as you do, Marko.