Barrister says ‘democracy at stake’ in Assange trial

Protest in Sydney in April 2019. Photo: Peter Boyle

February 24 is the first day of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange’s extradition hearing at Belmarsh Prison in London. The United States government will argue for his extradition to the US.

Adviser to the Australian Assange Campaign and barrister Greg Barns told Green Left that this case represents an attempt to destroy media freedom.

“The United States is saying if you publish something it does not want the world to know about, like war crimes in Iraq, it will seek to jail you for 175 years, irrespective of the fact you have never set foot in the United States.”

Assange is facing 18 charges — 17 under the Espionage Act — for conspiracy to receive, obtain and disclose classified information.

He is accused of working with former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Much of this relates to the unpopular US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which continue to this day. Only embedded and shackled media outlets were able to report on these wars, making whistleblowing a courageous act.

“It is critical there are whistleblowers who reveal the awful truth of war crimes and other crimes against humanity,” Barns said. “Without whistleblowers, there is no democracy and no accountability.” 

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is a former Australian intelligence agent who stood down over the lies being peddled by former British prime minister Tony Blair and former Australian PM John Howard in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq. Wilkie is currently in London with Liberal National Party MP George Christensen to visit Assange and gather support for his case. They are part of the parliamentary group Bring Assange Home.

Barns said both are “deeply concerned about the appalling mistreatment of Julian in the UK prison system”. Assange has been held in Belmash Prison, where he has spent long periods in solitary confinement since being dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in April and arrested for skipping bail. He had spent seven years in the embassy fighting extradition to the US.

Barns criticised the Australian government, which he said “has not protected Julian, other than through consular assistance. 

“To former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s credit, she renewed Julian’s passport. But what Australia must do is remove its citizen from the threat of an effective death penalty.”

The extradition hearing begins on February 24 and is expected to last a week. It will then adjourn until May 18. The decision is expected months later and, according to Barnes, will no doubt be appealed by one side or the other. “It could take some years to resolve, but what should happen is the UK should end the extradition process now and release Assange.”

Barns urged people to email and phone MP’s offices to “let them know that this is a major issue for Australians.

“What is at stake in this case is democracy,” he concluded.

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