Friday, 17 August 2012

Julian Assange, Ecuador, and Bermuda's curious right to sanctuary

The fascinating legal case of Julian Assange is making headlines again. He is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, having been granted political asylum in Ecuador. Ecuador is trying to get him safe passage out of UK territory. The UK, meanwhile, is considering what options it has to pluck him from the embassy. The legal situation has been superbly presented by UK legal blogger, Carl Gardner.

It's not unheard of for political figures to seek refuge in an embassy. General Noriega of Panama holed up in the Vatican's embassy to Panama in 1990. Eventually the Americans blasted him out not with grenades but with unbearably loud heavy metal music.

The untouchable status of embassies makes them akin to the medieval right to church sanctuary. In medieval England, fugitives who had committed crimes involving life or limb could seek sanctuary in a church, where the law was unable to touch them. They were then attended to by a coroner, to whom they would confess their crime. They then had forty days to "abjure the realm", which meant to renounce their allegiance to England. They were then dressed in a white robe with a red cross, which gave them safe passage to leave England aboard the first available ship, provided that they kept to the King's highways on their journey to port.

Of course, all that medieval stuff has now been abolished by statute and no longer applies in England.

So what's the significance of this to Bermuda?

By a quirk of history, it appears* that the right to sanctuary still exists in Bermuda.

Bermuda was established as a colony in 1612. The Supreme Court Act states that the common law and the Acts of Parliament of England which were in force in 1612 shall be the laws of Bermuda.

The right to sanctuary was not abolished in England until 1623 (by King James I), a mere eleven years after Bermuda was settled. I cannot see any reference to the right being abolished in Bermuda and so, presumably, it still exists in Bermuda for criminals who have committed violent offences. Due to the quirk of the chronologies of when Bermuda was founded and when the right was abolished, it is quite possible that Bermuda is the only place in the modern world where the medieval right to sanctuary still exists.**

However, a note of caution for anyone who is thinking of bumping somebody off and then adjuring the realm: Henry the Eighth passed an Act in 1530 vastly curtailing the right. From then on, the right still existed, but abjurers were not allowed to leave the realm. Instead they were required to spend the rest of their days in a church sanctuary of their choice and if they left the sanctuary, they would be tried for their original offence.

It is unclear whether a serious criminal would prefer to spend the rest of their life in a church yard, or risk 15 years in Westgate.

And, to bring it back to Julian Assange, just how long is he willing to live in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid arrest? If the UK government decides to just wait it out, his attempt at asylum could end up mirroring the conditions of a Bermudian sanctuary-seeker. He could be there for years and, as embassy residences go, this is not Chelston we're talking about, but a first floor flat in central London.

For anybody interested in finding out more about the right of sanctuary, there is an out of copyright book available to read online here which gives a reasonable overview.

* I am not 100% sure about this, as the abolition of ecclesiastical law in Bermuda may have affected the right to sanctuary, - however, it appears to have been a right recognised by both church law and common law, and was regulated by Acts of Parliament.
** other candidates might be Newfoundland, Virginia, Massachusetts and Maine, as they were also settled before 1623, but I am unfamiliar with how their law is determined

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