The campaign to free Assange: Reflections on 'Night Falls'

March 11, 2024
John Shipton (left) and Yanis Varoufakis at the Night Falls event on March 9. Photo: @MaryKostakidis/X

There was much to cherish about Night Falls in the Evening Lands: The Assange Epic, held on March 9 in Narrm/Melbourne’s Storey Hall.

It was a salutatory reminder that the plight of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who remains in Belmarsh Prison in London, has become one of immediate concern.

Worn down by judicial process and jailed by a United States surrogate power, Assange faces a vicious political indictment of 17 charges focused on the Espionage Act 1917 and one of computer intrusion.

A British High Court appeal on the matter of extradition hangs in the balance.

The thematic nature of such events can be challenging. One should never be too gloomy and, in Assange’s case, there is much to be gloomy about.

The sessions, steered through by Mary Kostakidis covered a fanned out universe: the nature of “imperial law” and extra-territorial jurisdiction; the stirring role of WikiLeaks in exposing state atrocities; the regenerative tonic Assange had given to an ungrateful, envious Fourth Estate; the healthy emergence of non-mainstream media; and the tactics necessary to convince politicians that the publisher’s release was urgently warranted.

Two speakers were spear-sharp on both the legacy of Assange and what had to be done to secure his release.

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek former finance minister and economist, was encouraging on both scores. Varoufakis pondered “what Julian had taught” him. Varoufakis reminded his audience that Assange’s genius as one of the original cypherpunks, able to build a website that has managed to weather hacking storms and stay afloat in treacherous digital waters. Whistleblowers and leakers could be assured of anonymous contributions to the WikiLeaks website.

He was also impressed by the man’s towering, almost holy integrity. As much as they disagreed, he recalled, “and as much as I wanted to throttle the man”, he brimmed with intellectual self-worth and value.

On the subject of revealing his sources, quite contrary to the spirit and substance of the US indictment, Assange was scrupulous to a fault. To betray any would endanger them.

Movingly, Varoufakis reflected on his own intellectual awakening when reading Assange’s meditations on the internet; how it might fracture the imperium of information guarded so closely by powerful interests.

Finally, that citizenry would have the means at their disposal to return the serve on spying and surveillance. The digital mirror would enable us to see what they — the state, their goons and their lickspittle adjutants — could see about us.

This was as significant to Varoufakis as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, books he read with some anxiety during the days of Greece’s military junta.

On the nature of power — in this case, the menace posed by the US imperium — Australia had to be break free and embrace non-alignment.

With characteristic flavour, Varoufakis characterised Washington’s exertion of influence over its satellite states as that of a mafia gang: “They manufacture insecurity in order to sell protection.”

It was a brilliant formulation and goes to the centre of that infantile desire of Australian policy makers to endorse AUKUS, a dangerous military compact with the US and Britain that will mortgage the country to the sum of $368 billion.

Even assuming that this arrangement would remain, those in the nation’s capital, including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, had to ask the fundamental question about Assange.

“Make it a condition of AUKUS that Assange returns to Australia,” insisted Varoufakis. “And the powerful will respect you even if you disagree with them.”

To date, the PM had been a sore disappointment and hardly likely to be respected, even by US President Joe Biden.

Greg Barns, a seasoned barrister and campaign strategist who has been involved in the WikiLeaks journey since 2012, delivered a sharp address.

While drawing attention to the outrageous assertion of extra-territorial jurisdiction by Washington to target Assange, Barns saw promise in the political dawn in Canberra.

A few years ago, he would never have envisaged being in a room where Adam Bandt, the Australian Greens leader, would be seated next to Matt Canavan, fossil fuel advocate and Nationals senator: “Beside Mr Green sat Mr Coal.” Their common purpose: Assange’s release and the termination of a state of affairs so unacceptable it is no longer the talk of academic common rooms and specialist fora.

Barns had sound advice: Pester local political representatives; arrange meetings, preferably in groups, with local members and remind them of the significance of the issue.

“Make it an alliance issue”, he said. There is nothing more worrying to a backbencher than concerned “traffic” through the electoral office that suggests a shift in voter sentiment.

“I will bet good odds that the treatment of Assange has made it into party room discussions,” declared Barns.

In closing, John Shipton, Assange’s tireless father, gave gentle, meditative thoughts. He journeyed through some of the day’s themes, prodding with questions. Was AUKUS a bribe?  A tribute? A payment for knowledge?

But Shipton could feel hope about his son: “Specks of gold” had formed to stir consciousness in the executive. Those in power were at long last listening.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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