What the Julian Assange case can teach us about heroes and the rule of law

WikiLeaks founder Julian AssangeReuters

Julian Assange is back in the headlines, just where he seems to enjoy being. Having spent the last four years hidden in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he remains news. This week, a UN panel said he had been subject to 'arbitrary detention,' a decision widely criticised – including by the British government.

Social media, not to mention mainstream press, went into overdrive. Assange is a polarising character. Hailed by many as a hero fighting a valiant fight against over-mighty states and the military-industrial complex, he's castigated by others as someone on the run from the law – unwilling to submit himself to the legal process.

So which is he? And what does his case teach us?

Assange came to prominence in 2010 after mainstream media outlets teamed up with his Wikileaks organisation to publish vast numbers of diplomatic cables and other sensitive data that shone light upon the way in which Western nations in particular conducted themselves.

Warfare, torture, diplomacy, finances – no realm was safe from Wikileaks' revelations. Information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was put out that damaged the reputation of American forces. Wikileaks also painted grim pictures of life elsewhere, highlighting vast corruption in Russia, for example. The tax affairs of the super-rich also came under the spotlight, while attempts were made to open vast corporate trade deals to the kind of public scrutiny they deserve.

This led to celebrity status for Assange. Seemingly very comfortable in the media glare, he courted publicity. Repeatedly. Spurious media conferences were called and numerous attempts to wrest the attention of the world's media back onto him were made.

If the story began as the leaking of information on the ways in which our 21st Century global military-industrial plutocracy was curtailing human rights, it soon became all about one man – Julian Assange.

In December 2010, Assange was arrested in London after an allegation of rape in Sweden. The Swedish prosecutor's office had issued a warrant. In May 2012, the UK Supreme Court ordered that Assange be extradited to Sweden and soon after he fled to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has remained.

So, looked at simply, Assange has spent the last six years avoiding the legal process in Sweden where he has been accused of a serious crime. His legions of admirers on social media leapt to his defence while oft-ridiculed demagogue George Galloway had his say.

Assange acolytes implied that if he was sent to Sweden for questioning by the authorities then there would be a risk of him then being extradited to the United States, where he may even face the death penalty, if charges were brought against him in relation to the vast amount of information he had leaked.

This was a technical risk, of course, but as a realistic possibility it has been seen as very unlikely. Assange was hiding in the Ecuadorean Embassy ostensibly because of the fear of being extradited to the United States, but this had the effect of shielding him from the legal process in Sweden, where there had been accusations of a serious crime. Having said that, it's undoubtedly true that there are powerful, shadowy vested interests who would like nothing more than to see his downfall.

This week a UN panel found that Assange had been 'unlawfully detained' – a decision which was met with incredulity and consternation given that Assange had effectively imposed the detention on himself by refusing to go to Sweden for questioning. British Home Secretary Phillip Hammond described Assange as "a fugitive from justice" and called the UN decision "ridiculous".

It remains to be seen whether Assange will ever go to Sweden to face the accusations against him. But what lessons can we learn from this whole affair?

Ecuador, which has been sheltering Assange in its London Embassy

Just because someone acts in a way we might see as heroic, brave or praiseworthy, it doesn't mean they are untouchable. Assange's army of online backers see him as a quasi-messianic figure. Yet, despite his exposure of the ways in which armies and corporations have flouted the rule of law, he refuses to face the rule of law himself – hiding away in the embassy of Ecuador, a country whose President, "has expanded state control over media and civil society and abused its power to harass, intimidate, and punish critics" according to Human Rights Watch.

This brings to mind the current case of Bishop George Bell. The wartime Bishop of Chichester heroically opposed both Nazism and the Allied carpet-bombing of Dresden. He was deeply admired in many other ways. But last year, the Diocese of Chichester issued a formal apology to a woman who said she had been abused by Bell as a child.

Bell is long dead and so there will never be the chance for him to have his day in court. But Assange is alive and should engage with the legal process rather than running from it. Maybe that time is coming nearer.

Assange is a hero to many. But that hero status doesn't make him super human. The whole concept of the rule of law is based on the idea that all of us – governments, the rich, powerful, elites and the rest of us alike – are treated the same by the legal system. Flouting of the basic concept by powerful cabals was unmasked by Wikileaks. We must demand the same of Julian Assange.