Given how many of those in the Australian media stable have been unconcerned about the prosecution of publisher Julian Assange, it was poignant to have his wife, Stella, present at the National Press Club in Canberra on May 22.
The ongoing prosecution of the WikiLeaks founder by the United States via the extradition processes of Britain is a brutal carnivalesque endeavour that continues to blight that legal system.
Stella stated the obvious fact that her husband is facing gloomy prospects for spilling the beans on the US national security state.
Once the doors open to such a prosecution on US soil, all bets are off on the subject of publishing national security information in the public interest.
For the first time in US legal history, a journalist, defamed and harassed, is threatened with being conveyed into the bowels of a carceral state so revolting it makes Belmarsh look like a retreat.
Stella spoke about Assange as the dedicated, loving and intellectually stimulated everyman.
She mentioned the “fledging rainbow lorikeet” her husband reared when he was on Magnetic Island in Queensland. She remembered the “chestnut coated mare which he would ride when he stayed in the Northern Rivers.” She told stories of him in his teens surfing in Byron Bay, and beekeeping in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria.
Stella knew it was important to keep matters simple: focus on the man in prison and suffering because of it.
“I can tell you exactly what Julian is doing right now. It is 3am in London. Julian is lying in his cell, probably awake and struggling to fall asleep. It’s where he spends 22 hours a day, every day.”
She mentioned how “Julian’s feet only ever feel the hard, dull, even cement on the prison floor”. Relief and respite cannot be found during the exercise routine. “When he goes to the yard for exercise, there is no grass, no sand. Just the bitumen pavement surrounded by cameras and layers of razor wire overhead.”
The cell Assange occupies is three by two metres, a scandalous situation in the absence of any conviction. The cold draft that comes in through the window is nullified, to some extent, by books. In this sense, literature does not merely nourish the mind but literally offers a buttressing shield against the elements.
The walls of the compressed space are also covered in pictures of his and Stella’s children, and of them together. In the ensemble, science is never neglected. “A large colourful poster of a nebula taken by NASA’s James Webb Telescope” also finds its pride of place in the cell.
As for the visits, Stella remains direct and impressively unsentimental. “When the children and I go to Belmarsh, usually on the weekend, we leave our belongings in a locker.
“We check in with the prison authorities in the visitor’s centre building, my fingerprint is scanned and we get a stamp on the back of our hands.”
After that, the entrance and the “endless queues”. One of the children conflates the prison with the queue, a beautifully grim parable that could apply to any penal system on the planet that fuses the procession with captivity itself.
“There is now near universal recognition of the enormous implications that this case has for press freedom and the future of democracy,” Stella said.
The herculean efforts by Stella and Assange’s father, John Shipton, have gotten the attention of Prime Minister,Anthony Albanese.
In an interview with the ABC earlier this month, Albanese claimed to be doing in private what he was saying in public — “that enough was enough”.
Diplomatic channels were being used, but the PM lamented the lack of success thus far: “I know it’s frustrating, I share the frustration. I can’t do more than make it very clear what my position is.”
That measure of frustration should indicate the extent, and worth, of Canberra’s influence and pull over their ally. Despite essentially gifting the country to Washington’s military industrial complex, gratitude towards Australian requests is not in ample supply on the Assange affair.
In refusing to meet Assange’s wife (he does not believe in “grandstanding”) Albanese continues to claim that “[n]othing is served from the ongoing incarceration” of the publisher.
He was also pleased that the position on Assange was now a bipartisan one: opposition leader Peter Dutton has now joined the pro-release advocates.
For all this, the PM is also entertaining a doomed equation: that Assange’s release will probably be achieved only after the time he has already served is deemed sufficient relative to the time he would get were the allegations against him proved.
Given that the 18 charges levelled against Belmarsh’s most prominent political prisoner would yield prison sentences of anywhere up to 175 years, expectations must be dampened.
For all that, Stella’s observation that her husband’s life was “in the hands of the Australian government” remains powerfully pertinent.
If not now, when?
[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]