The last flurry: US Congress and Australian MPs seek Julian Assange’s release

January 19, 2024
Activists mobilise outside the Australian Embassy in Britain last September. Photo: Alisdare Hickson/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia

Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, will be going into battle with the British justice system yet again on February 20.

Assange’s team will present arguments to the British High Court that his extradition to the United States to face 18 charges under the Espionage Act 1917 would violate various precepts of justice.

His team hope to reverse Justice Jonathan Swift’s decision by the same court last June 6.

At this point, the number of claims the defence team can make are potentially many.

However, the two judges hearing the case have asked for a substantially shortened argument, showing again that the quality of British mercy is strained and short.

The grounds Assange can raise are vast: CIA-sponsored surveillance; his contemplated assassination; his contemplated abduction; violation of attorney-client privilege; his poor health; the violation of free-speech; a naked, politicised attempt by an imperium to capture one of its greatest and most trenchant critics and the US government’s bad faith.

Assange campaigners continue to mobilise.

House Resolution 934, introduced by Arizona Republican Paul A Gosar to the US Congress on December 13, expresses “the sense of the House of Representatives that regular journalistic activities are protected under the First Amendment, and that the United States ought to drop all charges against and attempts to extradite Julian Assange”.

The resolution is a dramatic shift from the punishing views of the late Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was one of the first to suggest that Assange be crucified under the Espionage Act for disclosing US cables and classified information in 2010.

The resolution acknowledges, for instance, that the disclosures by WikiLeaks “promoted public transparency through the exposure of the hiring of child prostitutes by Defense Department contractors, friendly fire incidents, human rights abuses, civilian killings, and United States use of psychological warfare”. The list could be longer.

Drafters of the resolution finally acknowledge that charging Assange under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for alleged conspiracy to help US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning access Defense Department computers was a nonsense.

It was “impossible”: Manning “already had access to the mentioned computer”. Furthermore, “there was no proof Mr Assange had any contact with said intelligence analyst”.

Ire is also directed at the espionage counts, with the resolution noting that “no other publisher has ever been prosecuted under the Espionage Act prior to these 17 charges”.

A successful prosecution of Assange “would set a precedent allowing the United States to prosecute and imprison journalists for First Amendment protected activities, including the obtainment and publication of information, something that occurs on a regular basis”.

Acknowledgment is made about the importance of media freedoms to promote transparency and protect the Republic, the “sincere and steadfast” support for Assange shown by “numerous human rights, press freedom and privacy rights advocates and organizations” and the desire by “at least 70 Senators and Members of Parliament from Australia, a critical United States ally and Mr Assange’s native country” for his return.

Members of federal parliament, adding to the efforts last September to convince Congress that Assange’s prosecution be dropped, have also written to the British Home Secretary, James Cleverly. They requested he “undertake an urgent, thorough and independent assessment of the risks to Mr Assange’s health and welfare in the event that he is extradited to the United States”.

Assange campaigners continue to campaign hard for his release, as the solution to his plight is political.

Members of the “Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group have drawn Cleverly’s attention to the recent British Supreme Court case of AAA v Secretary of State for the Home Department which found “that courts in the United Kingdom cannot just rely on third party assurances by foreign governments but rather are required to make independent assessments of the risk of persecution to individuals before any order is made removing them from the UK”.

It follows that the approach taken by Lord Justices Burnett and Holroyde in USA v Assange [2021] EWHC 3133 was, to put it politely, a touch too confident in accepting assurances given by the US government regarding Assange’s treatment, were he to be extradited.

“These assurances were not tested, nor was there any evidence of independent assessment as to the basis on which they could be given and relied upon.”

The group’s conveners point to Assange’s detention in Belmarsh prison since April 2019, his “significant health issues, exacerbated to a dangerous degree by his prolonged incarceration, that are of very real concern to us as his elected representatives”.

They pointed out that both Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition leader Peter Dutton have said that the “case has gone on for too long”.

Continued legal proceedings, both in Britain and then in the US, were he to be extradited, “would add yet more years to Mr Assange’s detention and further imperil his health”.

There are surely fewer better things for a US president in an election year or a Tory government peering at electoral termination to facilitate than the release of Assange.

At the very least, it would show a grudging acknowledgment that the fourth estate is no corpse, but a vital necessity.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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