Andrew Wilkie says Julian Assange extradition trial 'should put all Australians on notice’

October 2, 2020
Photo: Paul Gregoire

The judge presiding over Julian Assange’s extradition case, Judge Vanessa Baraitser, indicated recently that she would not make a decision on whether the Australian journalist and publisher will be sent to the United States, until after the November election.

Currently, the fourth week of extradition hearings are underway, which marks the close of evidence.

Having been held on remand in Britain on behalf of the US since last September, if the WikiLeaks founder is extradited, he will face 18 espionage charges which carry a combined maximum of 175 years in prison.

If the Australian citizen is sent to the US and found guilty on the trumped up charges, he will be held under a correctional regime known as “special administrative measures”, which entails being imprisoned in a supermax facility and denied contact with the outside world.

The Scott Morrison government is looking the other way in sharp contrast to their help with journalists Peter Greste in Egypt and James Ricketson in Cambodia, as well as news anchor Cheng Lei currently incarcerated in China.

As the extradition trial moved into its third week, 167 politicians from 27 nations around the globe endorsed an open letter calling out the British government for acting in violation of both domestic and international laws in relation to its part in the extradition case.

Lawyers for Assange released the letter in mid-August, when it was initially signed by 189 independent international lawyers, judges, legal academics and lawyers’ associations, as they collectively condemned the Kafkaesque nature of the trial and the ongoing torture of Assange.

Politicians endorsing the letter include 13 current and former heads of state. In Australia, the list includes federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie, Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt and Greens Senator Nick McKim.

Wilkie, who is the co-chair of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, said Assange is being “politically persecuted” for exposing US war crimes, and that its extradition order  is “unjust in the extreme and arguably illegal under British law”.

Wilkie flew to London last February to visit Assange in Belmarsh Prison. Following the visit, the MP remarked that “at the end of the day, no one should be punished for doing the right thing”.

Wilkie should know. Back in 2003, he resigned his position as a senior intelligence officer at the now defunct Office of National Assessments, so he could speak out against the false pretences the John Howard government was employing to justify invading Iraq.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Wilkie about the treatment Assange has had to bear during his time in Belmarsh Prison, why the Prime Minister is shirking his responsibilities on this matter, and how Morrison could quite probably save Assange from the injustice.

Judge Baraitser has indicated that an extradition decision on Assange won’t be made until after the November 3 US election. Could this be his saving grace?

It’s a very curious decision by the judge to delay it until after the election result. That would seem to be at odds with my understanding of the law: that it should run its course regardless of politics.

The fact that the judge has made that decision highlights how intensely political this whole matter is: it’s not about justice being served, it’s about politicians wanting a political outcome.

Having said all that, maybe after the election, whoever is the president will be more favourably disposed to Assange and have the good sense to drop the whole matter.

One of the extraordinary aspects to the Assange case is that the US has been able to reach out across international borders and arrest him for alleged espionage crimes committed on the soil of other nations. What are the implications of this unprecedented move by the US government?

A lot of people are very concerned about this claim to extraterritoriality. That’s basically what’s going on here. The US is claiming that it has jurisdiction globally which, of course, it does not.

This is a remarkable turn of events, and it will be a chilling precedent if Assange is extradited.

It should put all Australians on notice that, if any of us offend a foreign government in any way, our government is open to a foreign government getting their hands on us.

It should be especially chilling for journalists. If this precedent is set, does that mean if an Australian journalist writing in Australia offends the Saudi or the Chinese or the Russian regime, and the government wants to maintain good relations with that country, that it hands over our citizens?

Well, of course, it shouldn’t. But this Assange matter really does risk establishing that precedent.

You have joined 166 other politicians from around the globe signing an open letter condemning the illegality of the extradition proceedings and calling for Assange’s immediate release. How do the extradition hearings and Assange’s continued detainment contravene domestic and international law?

Talking about the technical aspects, the extradition agreement between Britain and the US specifically rules out extradition on political grounds, and this is an intensely political matter.

So, this should have been thrown out of court on the first day, because the US is attempting to extradite someone on political grounds, and the treaty simply doesn’t allow that.

From a technical point of view, I see no basis for the extradition.

From a philosophical point of view, Assange and WikiLeaks are basically journalists and publishers publishing information in the public interest. This is a terrible attack on the free press.

The hypocrisy is writ large by the US, because freedom of the media is guaranteed in their constitution.

So, they’re saying that the constitution of the US doesn’t apply to Assange and WikiLeaks. But, at the same time, they’re claiming extraterritoriality over him.

This whole matter is riddled with inconsistency and hypocrisy.

In February, you went to London to visit Assange in Belmarsh Prison. How was he holding up?

He was putting on a brave face, but he’s in a very fragile state.

The British authorities say he hasn’t been in solitary confinement, but that is nonsense. He’s been confined to his cell for almost every hour of every day for more than 18 months now. And before that, he was almost in solitary confinement in the Ecuadorian Embassy for many years.

By any reasonable definition, that’s psychological torture — the 18 months in Belmarsh in virtual solitary. So, it’s entirely understandable that he is broken, fragile and vulnerable.

He’s not in the best of health. He has a history of respiratory ailments. I would have said that Belmarsh is the last place someone like that should be now.

George Christensen and I have made the case to the British government that, if nothing else, allow him to go into the community.

He is not a hardened criminal. He hasn’t been convicted of anything. He hasn’t been charged with anything in Britain. He’s not a flight risk, because his family is in Britain.

He should be in the community. Put a bracelet on him, or whatever is required. But he should not be in Belmarsh.

The federal government has done next to nothing to help an Australian journalist being prosecuted for doing his job. It stands in marked contrast to how it has responded to the situations of journalists Peter Greste and James Ricketson. What do you think about the way the government is dealing with Assange’s case?

The government’s conduct has been appalling: they don’t give two hoots about Assange. They don’t care one bit about the principles at stake and the precedents that will be set.

For them, it’s almost entirely about Australia’s relationship with Washington — kowtowing to whomever is in the White House and being prepared to line up with people like Mike Pompeo who, being the former head of the CIA, just wants to get even.

There has been a general reluctance for politicians to weigh in on this, because of the range of views in the community about Assange at a personal level. That’s also been dreadful to watch, because the public’s view of Assange is largely based on misinformation and disinformation.

It’s up to politicians like me, and including the PM, to educate the public about the substantive facts. This isn’t about Assange’s personality. It is nothing to do with the historic, and now dropped, allegation of rape.

If you look at the very narrow timeframe that the US action is based on — from late 2009 to early 2011 — the substantive matter is that the US is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and WikiLeaks and Assange published hard evidence of that.

That is what the PM, the government and my colleagues should be explaining to the community.

Whenever I explain the substantive facts to people, they almost always come onside.

You’re saying that the government should set out the facts for the community. What else should the government be doing to help one of its citizens? And, if it did that, would it be effective?

The obvious thing for Morrison to do would be to pick up the phone to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump, and say that this has become a circus that’s gone on too long: cut Australia some slack and let Assange return.

Morrison makes much of his relationships with world leaders, but there’s no point having them if you don’t use them.

He should get on the phone. Would it work? Well, I don’t know for sure. But if he gave it a red-hot go, there would be a real chance of a breakthrough.

[Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer for Sydney Criminal Lawyers where this piece was first published.]

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