Going to the mountain for Assange

Sep 13, 2023
The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Later this month I’ll travel to Washington, as part of a Parliamentary delegation, to advocate on behalf of Julian Assange. The Parliamentary delegation includes representatives from across the political colour spectrum – Forest Green (senior Nationals member Barnaby Joyce), Green (Senators Peter Whish-Wilson and David Shoebridge), Red (Labor backbencher Tony Zappia), Navy Blue (Liberal member Alex Antic) and Teal. This alliance, unlikely as it might appear, reflects the relative unity of Australian opinion about Julian Assange and his fate. While we might not agree with his actions – and we might not like how he’s comported himself in the past – 79% of Australians believe it’s past time for Julian Assange to be freed.

In 2006 Assange – a former computer hacker turned editor, activist and publisher – founded Wikileaks, a non-profit online document archive. In 2010, WikiLeaks published a trove of US intelligence about American activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. That data had been leaked by a US intelligence officer, Chelsea Manning, who was subsequently charged by the US government with 22 offences including violating the US Espionage Act and aiding the enemy. She pled guilty to 10 charges but was imprisoned for only three years before her sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2017.

The many tranches of documents released by Wikileaks were damaging and embarrassing for the US intelligence services; hence their ongoing, relentless attempts to secure Assange’s extradition to the US from the UK to face charges under the Espionage Act. Politically, the Democrats’ dislike of Assange was not helped by WikiLeaks 2016 publication of Hillary Clinton’s emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee. WikiLeaks subsequent release of the largest CIA leak in history in 2017 won Assange no friends in the Trump administration.

Assange has been an inmate of the UK’s Belmarsh Prison (dubbed “Britain’s Guantanamo Bay”) since April 2019, having previously taken refuge within the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for almost 7 years. The US-UK Treaty under which Assange’s extradition is being sought explicitly bans extradition for political offences, but the proceedings continue despite the obvious political overtones of this case. Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers exposing US misconduct in the Vietnam War, was also prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Ellsberg, whose case was dismissed with prejudice. Ellsberg described Assange’s prosecution as a greater abuse of process than his own. Assange’s position has been defended by the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, media and human rights organisations, and politicians from around the world.

Assange’s lawyer, London-based Australian Jennifer Robinson, has argued that his indictment represented “the most terrifying threat to freedom of speech in the 21st-century”. When she spoke at the National Press Club last year, Ms Robinson repeatedly referred to claims that in 2017 the CIA plotted to kidnap or assassinate Assange while he was a political refugee in London. She suggested that, if extradited, he might be subjected to Special Administrative Measures, a regime of extreme isolation described by human rights groups as inhumane and possibly amounting to torture.

There is some urgency to this mission because of the imminent possibility of Mr Assange’s extradition to the US, and his deteriorating physical and mental health. He had a minor stroke in 2021 and is described by family members as increasingly frail. His wife, Stella, has stated that she believes he will commit suicide if extradited to maximum security conditions in the US.

There have been mixed messages from the US Government this year: Caroline Kennedy, the US Ambassador to Australia flagged a possible plea deal in August. More recently, however, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stipulated that “The actions that he has alleged to have committed risked very serious harm to our national security, to the benefit of our adversaries, and put named human sources at grave risk – grave risk – of physical harm, and grave risk of detention.”

President Biden is perhaps constrained in his ability to intervene in this case by the ongoing legal cases against his predecessor and his son. The president has indicated that he is “committed to an independent Department of Justice”, but the commuting of Chelsea Manning’s sentence by President Obama seems at odds with the Biden administration’s ongoing pursuit of Assange. This is especially true given the absence of repercussions for the major newspapers which published the Wikileaks documents – media organisations like the Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde.

The reality remains that Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. He has won awards in Australia and internationally for his journalism. His prosecution in the US would raise concerning questions about the precedent set for journalists anywhere around the globe should they publish truthful information in the public interest and if that information is felt to be at odds with the US government’s perception of its own interest.

As my partner in the delegation – Barnaby Joyce – argued last week: “If the Americans can extradite an Australian to America after an affront to one of their laws, even though he is not a citizen and never committed a crime in America, how long before the Chinese ask for the same?”

The Australian Prime Minister will follow us to the US next month, and his first state visit to Washington will be an excellent opportunity to secure Assange’s release. Unlike previous Prime Ministers, Anthony Albanese has consistently backed Assange. He’s said publicly – before and after ascending to the Prime Ministership – that this affair has gone on too long.

This situation is one of politics, not of law. If the extradition request is approved, Australians will witness the deportation of one of our citizens from one AUKUS partner to another – our closest strategic ally – with Assange facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. The case represents an important test of our relationship with the US, and of our government’s ability to advocate on behalf of its citizens with our allies. The Parliamentary delegation will speak to our US peers regarding our respect for their First Amendment right of free press and free speech. We will echo the words of their own former President Thomas Jefferson; we will do our very best to convince the US Government that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”.

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