Critical week: Torture, US jail, awaits Julian Assange – act now

Feb 19, 2024
London, UK. 23rd Oct, 2021. LONDON, 23 OCTOBER 2021, Don't Extradite Assange Protest days before US appeals Julian Assange extradition block at The Royal Courts of Justice Credit: Lucy North/Alamy Live News

In terms of significant dates and milestones in the long running pursuit by the US of publisher and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, this coming week ranks highly. On Tuesday and Wednesday this week a hearing before two judges in the UK’s High Court will hear Assange’s final bid to appeal against extradition to the United States.

If he is not granted leave by the court for a full appeal hearing then this is the end of the penny section for Assange in his battle to stop his extradition to the US to face espionage act charges relating to the publication over a decade ago by Wikileaks of US war crimes and other abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK government could deport Assange before his legal team has the opportunity to file proceedings and seek a stay in the European Court of European Rights if a full appeal in unsuccessful.

Assange’s appeal raises a number of issues. One relates to the fact the extradition request was made to prosecute or punish Assange for his political opinions, which is unlawful under the UK-US extradition treaty. There is also an argument about media freedom and freedom of speech, fundamental human rights. The inability to get a fair trial in the US, the possibility of the US upgrading charges to those which carry a death penalty, and the undoubted torture he would suffer in the US prison system are all compelling arguments.

Seeking leave to appeal does not mean Assange has winning arguments. In the UK the test for determining whether leave should be granted to appeal is the appeal must have “a real prospect of success.” That is not a high bar, it does not mean Assange would win a full appeal, but that his arguments are such there is a real chance he could win.

Mr Assange’s latest legal challenge does not mean for one moment that a political solution involving the US, Australia and the UK should be placed on the back burner. Mr Assange’s legal process has some months, if not years to run, depending on the outcome of the leave application. But if the court delivers its judgment quickly and denies leave, Mr Assange could find himself on a plane to the US within days of this week’s hearing or certainly within the next few weeks. The politics of the case is therefore more urgent now than ever since Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadoran Embassy in 2012.

The politics of the case keeps rearing its head in this country thanks largely to the efforts of Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and his colleagues involved in the parliamentary Assange support group. And in this arena last week’s passing of a motion supported by 86 MPs (including the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese) with 42 opposing, calling on an end to the Assange case was significant. As was the fact the next day Mr Wilkie asked Mr Albanese a question on Assange in which the latter stressed the number of times he, Foreign Minister Penny Wong, and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus have emphasised to the Biden Administration the case must end. As the Prime Minister said last Wednesday, “Regardless of where people stand, this thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely.”

On the 42 MPs who opposed the motion, they were Coalition MPs in the main. According to frontbencher Dan Tehan, the opposition to the motion was not based on disagreement with the Albanese government that the case needed to be resolved quickly but that “Assange is accused of is leaking national security secrets. Now no one should condone that.” But, he added; “What we do want to see though … is that justice can prevail in a quick time, that he can be heard in court and that the length of time that it’s taken to prosecute this isn’t so long.”

Some would argue that given the push back so far by the Biden Administration to the entreaties made by the Albanese government, the Prime Minister’s words last week was a case of simply shoring up domestic political support. That is, he is seen to be doing ‘something’. But a resolution of two thirds of the national parliament, coupled with the cross party delegation that visited Washington late last year, and the pressure from Albanese government is a campaign which is difficult for the Biden Administration not to notice.

The parliamentary vote is, in that sense, a serious development in terms of how the Biden Administration might perceive the Assange case. It is exceedingly rare for there to be two thirds support among MPs on any issue, let alone one where there has been controversy and inaction or hostility to the cause on the part of previous Australian governments.

No doubt US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy and her team will have sent a cable back to Washington discussing the parliamentary vote and that the opposition to support for Assange by 42 MPs is more about style rather than substance.

What this week’s hearing in a London court reminds us is that the political push is more important than ever because the prospect of Assange’s health continuing to deteriorate in the hell hole that is Belmarsh prison because of the drawn out legal process, or his being whisked to a waiting plane so he can be jailed in a US prison where torture and cruel and unusual punishment will be the order of the day, means the Albanese government forcefully telling Washington that it must end its pursuit of Assange, and that not to do so is to snub the Australian people.

Greg Barns SC is an adviser to the Australian Assange Campaign


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