An open letter, signed by prominent figures in Aotearoa (New Zealand), is being sent to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, calling on them to offer asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. It also calls on United States President Joe Biden to drop the espionage charges against Assange.
As a publisher and journalist, Assange has exposed the war crimes and worldwide surveillance activities of the US and its allies, including Australia and New Zealand.
A defence committee called Aotearoa 4 Assange (A4A) prepared the open letter, which calls on the NZ government “to stand for WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange — a member of the South Pacific region, who published vital truths in the public interest”.
“His imprisonment and the charges against him are perilous to global human rights, the public’s right to know and peace. The United Nations, Amnesty International and every major human rights group in the world are calling for Julian Assange to be freed.
“We call on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta to lead the way home for Julian Assange by welcoming him to our shores.”
To boost support for this demand before the extradition appeal on October 27 and 28, A4A organised an online panel featuring Daniel Ellsberg, who famously released the Pentagon Papers, exposing US war crimes in Vietnam. Ellsberg faced similar charges for whistleblowing.
Three other panelists supported the open letter’s demands: Dr Deepa Driver, a lecturer at the University of Reading in Britain, a participant on the recent Belmarsh Tribunal in London, and a legal observer of the process against Assange; Greg Barnes SC, an Australian lawyer who has been working with the defence team; and myself — a former New Zealand cabinet minister, lawyer and member of A4A.
Ellsberg told the panel that a trial under the US Espionage Act “cannot be a fair trial, as there is no appeal to motives, impact or purposes”.
“It does not permit that person to tell the jury why they did what they did,” said Ellsberg. “It is shameful that President Biden has gone in the footsteps of President Trump. It is shameful … to have continued that appeal.”
Ellsberg said the prosecution of Assange “puts a target on the back of every journalist in the world who might consider doing real investigative journalism of what we call the National Defence or National Security”.
“There will be more Vietnams, more Iraqs, more acts of aggression … A great deal rides (on this case).”
Driver expanded on the human rights abuses suffered by Assange in Belmarsh prison, which she recently gave in testimony to the Belmarsh Tribunal, alongside former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour MPs.
“Julian Assange was served the second superceding indictment on the first day of the trial. When he took his papers with him, back to prison, his privileged papers were taken from him. He was handcuffed, cavity searched, stripped naked on a daily basis,” said Driver.
“To be put through the indignities and arbitrariness of the process which is consistently working in a way that doesn’t stand with normal process … the physical effects of torture are pretty severe including the internal damage he has.”
Driver quoted UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer, who welcomed the original January 5 judgement denying extradition, which is the subject of the current US appeal: “This ruling confirms my own assessment that, in the United States, Mr Assange would be exposed to conditions of detention, which are widely recognised to amount to torture".
But Melzer went on to condemn the judgement for its failure to expose the purpose of the US indictment. He asserted that the judgement, by opposing extradition solely on the issue of health, set an “alarming precedent, effectively denying investigative journalists the protection of press freedoms and paving the way for their prosecution under charges of espionage”.
“The judgement fails to recognise that Mr Assange’s deplorable state of health is the direct consequence of a decade of deliberate and systematic violation of his most fundamental human rights by the Governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Ecuador,” said Melzer.
“The failure … to denounce and redress the persecution and torture … leaves fully intact the intended intimidation effect on journalists and whistleblowers world-wide who may be tempted to publish secret evidence for war crimes, corruption and other government misconduct.”
While supporting the asylum demand to PM Jacinda Ardern, Barnes strongly criticised the Australian government’s complicity in the persecution and failure to oppose the prosecution.
”We know the CIA intended effectively to murder Assange. For an Australian citizen to be put in that position by Australia’s number one ally is intolerable,” said Barnes.
“The Australian government ought to intervene in this case and ensure the safety of one of its citizens … it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the New Zealand government could offer … what Australia appears incapable of doing.”
Finally, I explained that as an Australian citizen, Assange has an automatic right to permanent residence in NZ, without the need to apply. Thus, there is no technical reason why Ardern and her cabinet could not grant him immediate entry if he were freed.
However, NZ ministers have so far not offered any opposition to the charges and repeat a constant mantra that they share common democratic values with the other Five Eyes intelligence alliance members, and welcome the US policy for the Indo-Pacific.
Furthermore, as part of Five Eyes, NZ has a shocking record of providing signals and human intelligence to support the US war in Vietnam, the slaughter in Indonesia in 1965, the occupation of East Timor and is now playing its assigned role in the US containment strategy against China.
However, public opinion can force the hand of a government. For example, take the recent response of former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark, who recently articulated what many New Zealanders believe: “You do wonder when the hatchet can be buried with Assange — and not buried in his head by the way. I do think that information that’s been disclosed by whistleblowers down the ages has been very important in broader publics getting to know what is really going on behind the scenes. And should people pay this kind of price for that? I don’t think so. I felt that Chelsea Manning, for example, was really unduly repressed. The real issue is the activities they were exposing and not the actions of their exposure.”
The open letter will be presented to Prime Minister Ardern in the next week, along with a transcript of the comments of her Labour predecessor, Helen Clark.
The Green Party has been asked to table it in parliament.
[Matt Robson is a former NZ cabinet minister and is a member of the Aotearoa for Assange Committee. For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.]