Biden’s throwaway lines on Assange give flicker of hope

April 12, 2024
Julian Assange supporters in Gadigal/Sydney mark five years of his incarceration in Belmarsh prison on April 11. Photo: Stephen Langford

United States President Joe Biden was with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida when asked what he was doing regarding Australia’s request that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be returned to Australia.

Assange, who has spent five tormenting years in Belmarsh Prison in London, is battling extradition to the US on 18 charges, 17 tenuously and dangerously based on the US Espionage Act of 1917.

The words that followed which heartened the publisher’s supporters were: “We’re considering it.”

No further details have been supplied.

To these crumbs came this reaction from Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on ABC’s News Breakfast: “We have raised on behalf of Mr Assange, Australia’s national interest, that enough is enough, that this needs to be brought to a conclusion, and we’ve raised it at each level of government in every possible way.”

When pressed on whether this was merely an afterthought from the president, Albanese responded with the usual acknowledgments: the case was complex and responsibility lay with the US Department of Justice.

Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, told Sky News Australia she was encouraged by Biden’s response, saying, “This is what we have been asking for over five years.

“Since 2010 we’ve been saying this is a dangerous precedent that’s being set. So, we certainly hope it was a serious remark and the US will act on it.”

Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, also told Sky News that the statement was significant, while WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson thought the utterance “extraordinary”, cautiously hoping “to see in the coming days” whether “clarification of what this means” would be offered by “those in power” and the press corps.

The campaign to free Assange has increased with ferocity.

The WikiLeaks founder, once described as an eccentric, renegade cyber thief deserving punishment, is now being acknowledged as a persecuted author and political prisoner.

The legal process has also been shown up as woefully inadequate and scandalous: it has been a form of long-term torture via judicial torment and deprivation.

The current ludicrous pit stop entails waiting for the British Court of Appeal to decide if Assange will be granted leave for a full reconsideration of his case, including the merits of the extradition order itself. 

The Court of Appeal’s March 26 decision refused to entertain the obvious features of the case: that Assange is being prosecuted for his political views; that due process is bound to be denied in a country whose authorities have contemplated his abduction and murder; and that he risks being sentenced for conduct he is not charged with “based on evidence he will not see and which may have been unlawfully obtained”.

The refusal to entertain such material as the Yahoo News article from September 2021, which outlined the views of intelligence officials on kidnapping and assassination options, again cast Assange’s ongoing imprisonment without charge in a poor light.

Even if Assange is granted a full hearing, it is not clear whether the court will accept the arguments.

The judges have already nobbled the case by offering US prosecutors the chance to offer undertakings, none of which would, or could, be binding on the Department of Justice or any US judge hearing the case.

Extradition, in other words, is likely to be approved if Assange is “permitted to rely on the First Amendment”, “is not prejudiced at trial (including sentence) by reason of his nationality” and that he “is afforded the same First Amendment protection as a United States citizen, and that the death penalty not be imposed”.

These conditions, on the face of it, look absurd in their naïve presumption.

Whether Biden’s latest casual reply lends any credibility to a change of heart remains to be seen.

Biden described Assange as a “high-tech terrorist” for disclosing State Department cables in December 2010, when he was Vice President in the Barack Obama administration.

He failed to identify any parallels with previous cases of disclosures, such as the Pentagon papers. 

Craig Murray, former British diplomat and Assange confidant, adds a note of cautious sobriety to the recent offering from the president: “I’m not going to get too hopeful immediately on a few words out of the mouth of Biden, because there has been no previous indication, nothing from the Justice Department so far to indicate any easing up.”

For all that, it may well be that the current US administration, facing a relentless publicity campaign from human rights organisations, newspapers, legal and medical professionals, not to mention pressure from both his own party in Congress and Republicans, is finally yielding.

Caution, however, is the order of the day, and nothing should be read or considered in earnest until signatures are inked and dried. We are quite a way off from that.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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