Voices demanding Assange’s return grow

December 23, 2021
Protest outside the US extradition appeal in London on October 28. Photo: Clau Cuartas/Facebook

With Julian Assange now fighting the next stage of efforts to extradite him to the United States to face 18 charges, 17 of which are based on the brutal, archaic Espionage Act, some Australian politicians have found their voice. It might be said that a few have even found their conscience.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was sufficiently exercised by the High Court judgment overturning the lower court ruling against extradition to demand an end to the matter. In his opinion piece for the Nine newspaper group on December 14, he argued that rights were “not created in some legal sonic boom at one undefined point of our existence nor switched off like the power to a fridge because of a fear or a confusion as to the worth of their contents”.

The deputy PM proved mature enough to say that “whether you like him or despite him” the importance of the case transcended Assange’s situation. “So we must hope for the British courts to do so, and we will judge its society accordingly.” (They have not and, accordingly, should be judged.)

The Nationals leader has little time for the role of whistleblowing or disclosing egregious misconduct by a state; less time for Assange as the publisher in history, the exposer of crimes by a great power. “They are a separate matter to the key issue: where was this individual when he was allegedly breaking US law for which the US is now seeking his extradition from London?,” he asked.

Joyce’s reasoning, while simplistic on the historical contributions of WikiLeaks, has the merit of unusual clarity. He argued that Britain “should try him there for any crime he is alleged to have committed on British soil or send him back to Australia, where he is a citizen.”

Assange never pilfered any US secret files; did not breach Australian laws and was not in the US when “the event being deliberated in the court now in London occurred”. To extradite him to the US would not only be unjust but bizarre. “If he insulted the Koran, would he be extradited to Saudi Arabia?”

The move by the Nationals leader also brought a few voices of support from the woodwork. Liberal backbenchers Jason Falinski and Bridget Archer are encouraging diplomatic intervention. Falinski suggested that the Morrison government “do what it can to get an Australian citizen back to Australia as quickly as possible” though he refused to entertain “a public spat with America”. Archer believed that “he should be released and returned to Australia”.

The announcement that Caroline Kennedy would the new US Ambassador to Australia is also being seen as an opportunity.  Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr suggested that Morrison take the chance to discuss the Assange case with Kennedy. (This is from a man who once claimed that Assange “has had more consular support in a comparable time than any other Australian” while admitting that he did not “know whether this is the case”.)

Morrison might, suggested Carr, point out that Australia had its own challenges in facing war crimes allegations, notably “war crimes trials pending for Australian troops in Afghanistan who might have done the very things Assange exposed in Iraq”. Washington’s treatment of the publisher could well “turn this guy into a martyr”.

Carr sees such advice as part of the capital of trust between allies. It was a “small transaction under the architecture of what each sees as a mutually beneficial relationship”. It might even show that Australia was capable of behaving “like a sovereign nation” in “one tiny corner of our alliance partnership”. If Canberra was unable to “take up the cause of an Australian passport holder, what scope for any independent action do we allow ourselves?”

While the former foreign minister shows flashes of ignorance about aspects of the proceedings (the US prosecution, for instance, made a special point in not mentioning the Collateral Murder video in its proceedings), he is at least cognisant of the monstrous defects in the case, not least the fact that a good deal of the indictment is based on falsified accounts from former WikiLeaks volunteer Sigurdur “Siggi” Thordarson.

Despite the latest stirring of principled awareness, Australian governments tend to protect their citizens with a begrudging reluctance, except in the rarest of cases. They are notorious in playing the game of surrender and capitulation.

In the context of the US-Australian alliance, one given an even more solid filling with the AUKUS security pact, the hope that Australia would ever be able to exercise sovereign choices on any issue that affects US security is almost inconceivable.

The lamentable behaviour from Canberra regarding Assange’s welfare has also been brought to light by lawyer Kellie Tranter. Using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, Tranter developed a timeline revealing how officials were updated on Assange’s condition (legal and physical) yet did little in the way of addressing it. Kit Klarenberg, making use of Tranter’s findings, also discussed the extent officials knew about Assange’s plight.

In April 2019, for instance, lawyer Gareth Pierce, acting for Assange, wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) warning that the publisher’s possessions were being held by the Ecuadorian authorities. These included a stash of privileged legal documents.

DFAT, while claiming it would chase the matter up, concluded in May 2019 that Assange’s possessions were “under the authority and jurisdiction of the Judicial System of the Republic of Ecuador”. Australian diplomats, it followed, were unable to intervene.

The result? Assange’s documents, held by the Ecuadorians, were seized by the FBI.

As extradition proceedings were taking place, Peirce wrote to the Australian High Commission that consular representatives would have “undoubtedly noted what was clear for everyone present in court to observe” – that the publisher was “in shockingly poor condition … struggling not only to cope but to articulate what he wishes to articulate.” DFAT’s report of those proceedings, intentionally or otherwise, was silent on the issue.

Throughout, DFAT maintained that Assange had refused consular assistance or support. This was a point the publisher took up in a meeting at Belmarsh prison with consular officials on November 1, 2019, claiming that to be misguided nonsense.

He also noted concerns by the prison doctor about his state being “so bad that his mind was shutting down” and the appalling state of isolation which made it impossible for him “to think or to prepare his defence”.

[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.]

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