UPDATE (9 September 2015): the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice have been in contact with me to say that the provisions of Section 72 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 only apply to crimes committed against people aged under 18. This means that the entire premise of this blog post is wrong. But I keep it here as food for thought.
Suspected sex-offender Julian Assange may think that his long-stay at the Ecuadorian embassy in London has served him well; especially with the news today that Sweden is dropping investigations into three out of the four cases. But he shouldn’t be too confident.
No doubt his supporters – who have long had a very distant relationship with truth and reality – will say that Assange has been cleared. Quite the contrary. By his illegal actions (he is in contempt of court by being in the embassy) he has denied himself the opportunity to clear his name. Having charges dropped because they have passed their statute of limitations – especially when your own behaviour is the reason that charges couldn’t be brought in time – is not clearing your name.
People are, of course, innocent until proved guilty. But that assumes due process will be followed. Assange isn’t a cleared man. He is an accused sex offender who has refused to answer the allegations against him. He remains “on the run”, a fugitive from justice; and every day he remains in the Ecuadorian embassy he continues to be in contempt of court.
The fourth allegation against Assange remains. He, perhaps, feels that he only has to stick it out a few more years and that, too, will have passed its statute of limitations; and he will be free to walk out of the embassy into the freedom of London’s streets.
Quite aside from the contempt of court issue and possible breach of bail offences, there is the matter of section 72 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This makes it an offence in England and Wales to commit sexual offences overseas. And, unlike Sweden, there is no statute of limitations in England and Wales for sexual offences.
The provisions were brought in primarily to address so-called “sex tourism” – British people going abroad to commit sexual offences, usually against minors, and then returning to the UK, seemingly outside the jurisdiction of the country that the offences were committed in.
But the legislation has been drawn deliberately quite widely.
Section 72(3) of the Act states:
(a) a person does an act in a country outside the United Kingdom at a time when the person was not a United Kingdom national or a United Kingdom resident,
(b) the act constituted an offence under the law in force in that country,
(c) the act, if done in England and Wales, would have constituted a sexual offence to which this section applies, and
(d) the person meets the residence or nationality condition at the relevant time,
proceedings may be brought against the person in England and Wales for that sexual offence as if the person had done the act there.”
For the avoidance of doubt, section 73(4) goes on to explain that a defendant “meets the residence or nationality condition at the relevant time if the person is a United Kingdom national or a United Kingdom resident at the time when the proceedings are brought.”
So it matters not whether or not Julian Assange was a UK resident at the time of the alleged offences (I have no idea whether he was or wasn’t – if he was, section 72(2) of the Act would apply) – he could be prosecuted in the UK no matter that the offences were said to have been committed in Sweden and that the Swedish authorities have been forced by the passage of time to drop their investigations.
This part of the Act was brought in specifically to deal with cases were people had fled the long arms of the law by fleeing jurisdiction. It was designed to ensure that Britain would not become a safe haven for sex offenders. It was brought in to make the long arms of the law even longer.
Sweden have today explained that they have been forced to drop three of the four allegations against Julian Assange. The Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and the CPS should wipe the smile of Assange’s face by making clear that they are not ruling out a prosecution under this particularly brilliant piece of legislation.
It is already clear that the UK government have no truck with Assange and his tactics. This afternoon, Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Hugo Swire said: “Ecuador must recognise that its decision to harbour Mr Assange more than three years ago has prevented the proper course of justice. As a result, some of the serious sexual allegations against him will now expire. It is completely unacceptable that the British taxpayer has had to foot the bill for this abuse of diplomatic relations.
“I want to make clear that as an allegation of rape remains outstanding, the UK continues to have a legal obligation to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden. I have instructed our Ambassador in Quito to reiterate to Ecuador that the continuing failure to expedite the Swedish Prosecutor’s interview, and to bring this situation to an end, is being seen as a growing stain on the country’s reputation. I will also repeat this to the Ecuadorean Ambassador in London.”
Fine words – and now it’s time for fine actions.