Rob Stary, an Australian lawyer representing WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, spoke to the WikiLeaks Australian Citizens Alliance on February 4.
In the interview below, Stary discusses the persecution of WikiLeaks and the failure of the Australian government to uphold Assange’s rights.
When did you first meet Julian Assange?
In June 2010, when the first tranche of material was released from Australia.
Julian Assange approached us and asked us to be his lawyers, because we knew a storm of controversy would be created, and we then wrote to the Australian federal police in June last year, and to the state department in the US, saying that we acted for Julian, we knew he would be a person of interest, and if they wanted to commence any dialogue to communicate with us.
And curiously, the state department responded [but] the Australian federal police remained passive until December when [Assange] was arrested in the UK, and when further controversy unfolded.
So in that period we acted for him and continue to act for him as his Australian-based lawyers.
And we are aware, for instance, that he went back to Sweden in August  to speak to a conference or forum there.
We knew of the events that unfolded immediately after that conference, where allegations were made and then withdrawn. There was prevarication by the prosecutors’ office in Sweden as to whether he might be charged with offences or not.
He remained there in communication with the Swedish authorities. [He] went to the UK with their knowledge in November. In December, he gets arrested and the events that we all know of have unfolded since then — bailed and facing extradition [hearings] on the 7th of February.
Are you aware of any investigations into the US’s “spying” on UN officials as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables? Is the pursuit of Assange a deliberate strategy of distraction?
It seems to be incontrovertibly the case that some sort of offence has been committed, contrary to all UN protocols and conventions in terms of the intelligence gathering exercises the US Secretary of State initiated.
Remarkably, absolutely remarkably, there has been relatively little furore. I’m not aware of any individual prosecution by any state or by any other institution, or indeed by the UN against the US [secretary of state].
It might say something about the power they wield over the UN generally.
One thing we’ve been really focused on is to say, in terms of the WikiLeaks debate, we need to make sure we focus on what the mission statement of WikiLeaks is about: truthfulness, transparency and accountability.
The best way … to undermine the institution is to attack the messenger or the individuals. It’s a ploy. It’s a sophisticated ploy that every Western government engages in when they are under attack — particularly from a small institution like WikiLeaks.
And so to make claims, whether they are capable of substantiation or not, about sexual assault, for instance, that becomes a real distraction. That becomes the focus on Julian Assange.
Not the important work that he’s done over the past four years, exposing for instance in Australia, [foreign minister] Kevin Rudd’s claim that we might have to look at the military option against China if they don’t become compliant in world trade discussions.
Well, before I get obliterated by China I want to know what my foreign minister is saying about these sorts of issues. And if Kevin Rudd put that as a serious proposition, then he ought to be brought to account by the parliament, by his own party, by the opposition, by the parliament itself.
And yet, that seems not to have occurred. He laughs the suggestion off, but it wasn’t put in any jocular or joking way.
The other thing that WikiLeaks has revealed is the role of people like [Labor MP] Michael Danby, who is an important figure in the Labor party because his role is really as the principal spokesperson for Israel. It’s an important role, for the sake of Israel, within the Australian government.
He’s their chief propagandist so to speak — and I don’t say that in a pejorative sense, but that’s his role.
He’s going to the US. He’s reporting on machinations within the Labor Party. And he has a very strong relationship, and one has to wonder about where his first loyalties lie. Are they to the people of Australia? Or are they to some other foreign government? Whether that be the US, or whether that be Israel.
And then there is [Labor MP] Mark Arbib, who is really blindly ambitious in terms of his own promotion and progression through the Labor Party … Some people describe him as an informer, other people describe him as acting in a treacherous and traitorous way.
And again, what’s occurred is that there has been an attempt to distract the Australian community from those very important issues.
I will use this as an example. On the 30th of November Julia Gillard has initiated an inquiry within the Australian Federal Police as to whether WikiLeaks or Julian Assange has acted unlawfully.
Six days later on the 6th of December, She then comes out with [Attorney General] Robert McClelland with her notorious comments saying that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks had acted both unlawfully and reprehensibly.
On the 8th of December, two days later, and certainly before any finding from the Australian Federal Police as to [whether] any unlawful acts had occurred, she preempts what they are to say.
Two days later we get the exposure of Rudd and Danby and Arbib, and that’s distracted [from] a bit because she’s saying that WikiLeaks has acted unlawfully and Julian Assange has acted unlawfully and reprehensibly.
So that becomes the main focus, not on two days later when the exposure takes place.
And then of course on the 17th of December, the Australian Federal Police quite critically says: “There is no unlawful action. He’s not capable of being prosecuted.”
In that same timeframe we have the Tea Party fanatics of the US saying that Assange should be hunted down, executed, assassinated and placed in Guantanamo Bay. That becomes another distraction because it's focused on the messenger, rather than what WikiLeaks as an institution is about.
The [Australian] government, rather than say, “here is one of our citizens, we will act to protect him to ensure he is afforded all his rights. That if there is a prosecution, there is a fair trial process”, they remained silent.
And really, if you want to talk about reprehensible behaviour, then let's point the finger the other way and say the government has in fact acted reprehensibly.
Is the Attorney-General investigating the incitement of violence against Julian Assange?
There is a provision under the commonwealth criminal code that says it’s an offence to cause serious physical harm or mental harm to an Australian citizen.
It does not matter that the offence occurs outside of Australia. And it does not matter that the persons who are accused or alleged to have perpetrated the alleged offence are not in fact Australian citizens.
The legislation is so broad in its scope that it was designed to capture people, for instance, in the Bali bombing kind of situation, where Australian citizens were killed and injured in that horrific terrorist attack.
And so it, now, would have given Australian authorities an opportunity to prosecute the perpetrators of that crime.
It’s a provision that had never been invoked. And because all of this so-called anti-terrorism legislation is so broad in its compass, we said to the Australian government, “Julian Assange is an Australian citizen.
“There has been a terrible incitement to violence against him. It would cause any person serious psychological harm at a minimum. And you ought to intervene and charge people overseas that continue to engage in that incitement to violence.”
They’ve responded [by] saying that giving regard to the scarcity of resources in the Australian Federal Police’s office, and in regard to the level of criminality involved and having regard to other factors, they would not initiate an investigation.
And that is a remarkable thing because you can imagine if Mr Assange was a US citizen. There would be uproar and there would be a demand that those engaging in that incitement to violence … be prosecuted.
But we sit back as a government — the Australian government — and do nothing.
Fortunately, whether there has been some representations made to its US counterparts, the sort of extremist, violent rhetoric has dissipated to some degree, and maybe there has been messages behind closed doors.
We know that [regarding] our claim that some action be taken against Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee — both serious politicians in the US, at one level — things have now quietened down and something must have been said.
But I have sat back and I’ve been flabbergasted by the Australian government’s absence of any response to protect one of its citizens — a person who has not been charged for any offence.
There has been a very serious investigation into as to whether any offence has been committed, and yet here he is, under house arrest in the UK wearing electronic bracelets.
People say, for instance, that he is living a comfortable life in a manor in the UK, but he is actually confined to a single room in the house for lengthy periods. He doesn’t have the free reign of the premises as some people think. So there is very serious curtailment of his liberty.
What’s driving the Australian government’s silence on WikiLeaks and its failure to advocate for the protection of Assange’s rights as an Australian citizen?
The Australian government is worried because it has a subservient and sycophantic relationship with US.
There has been political commentary about that in the past: we’re the lapdogs of the US, we’re the junior Texas cowboys. With [former PM] John Howard, all sorts of disparaging remarks were made about him and his relationship [with the US].
These things are invariably driven by, firstly, economic considerations. These are driven, secondly, by geopolitical-strategic decisions. And a distant third is the individual rights of the citizen.
And so the Australian government is embarrassed. They knew there was going to be relevations. They know there is going to be more revelations. And I expect that they should be embarrassed about the illegal pretext for the war on Iraq.
We know that there has been a terrible loss of life from the armed services. But that is incomparable to the tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq itself that have been killed, in a war that was initiated on a false pretext. And we are a party to that.
You will remember that recently Tony Blair — I think he encapsulated the attitude of the West — said (this was in the Chilcot inquiry) even if the war itself was unlawful, I don’t care, I would have still gone ahead and invaded the country, using then the pretext of regime change as the basis for the invasion and the occupation.
That’s unlawful. He should be prosecuted as a war criminal. John Howard, Alexander Downer and Phillip Ruddock should be prosecuted as war criminals because that’s what they are.
Why has the Australian government not held a formal investigation into the legitimacy and truthfulness of the case presented to the Australian people to justify our country’s participation in the invasion of Iraq?
It’s amazing isn’t it? There is an investigation in the UK, but in Australia there is such a marginal difference in the political spectrum now between the two mainstream political parties that they are trying to outbid each other for the centre and so they are both hand-in-glove with the war in Iraq and they don’t want to be criticised.
What will happen next with Julian Assange’s extradition process?
The extradition process will take about three days. The judge will make, we expect, a quick decision because of the controversy and the public interest in the case. But then inevitably there will be an appeal process.
The Swedish and British governments will appeal an adverse finding, and conversely, we will appeal if he is extradited.
[Since this interview was conducted, a British judge ruled on February 24 that Assange be extradited to Sweden to face questioning. Assange has appealed the decision.]
Because we all know the main game in these extradition proceedings. It is not what’s going to happen in Sweden. Whether the case against him is meritorious or not, that’s not the main game.
The main game is the US. And when we have senior Republican politicians calling for his assassination, execution, detention in Guantanamo Bay, how can you get a fair trial process in the US?
We know that many academic and other people who have studied the Assange case and the Daniel Ellsberg case — the Pentagon Papers case — see [them as very similar] to each other. They know that it is a first amendment, freedom of speech type case.
I think the Congress research services has been asked to investigate whether Assange has been involved in any criminal activity, and they can’t identify anything.
The only way that they can link him with [an offence] is through Bradley Manning, the person through who [allegedly] obtained the material and then distributed it.
If they can establish a conspiracy between Manning and Assange, then they can charge him. But there is simply no evidence of a conspiracy.
So we say there is no basis for him to be extradited to the US. But it’s not simply a question of an analysis of the law. It’s all those other factors that come into play: the politics, the economics and all the other factors that seem to take a primary position over the rule of law.
What happens if the initial appeal against extradition fails?
What will happen, even if the extradition process runs its full course, and even if there is an adverse finding, there is potentially an appeal to the European human rights court. It may be, hopefully, that even if there is a decision to extradite him from the UK, the European Union won’t permit it.
Because there, [it can be argued] the proceedings are a sham, that there is some ulterior motive that is not genuinely connected to the allegations, and then we would hope there would be intervention.
What role can the Australian public play in bringing Julian Assange home?
The Australian public has a critically important role. We’re at interesting times, seeing the development of mass movements throughout the world everywhere — not just controversially in Tunisia or Egypt or Jordan, but everywhere.
Because now people are saying: “We don’t want our governments to mislead us, we don’t want our governments to be dishonest, we don’t want our governments to treat us like we are not worthy of an intellectual understanding of the processes. We want to be treated respectfully and on an intellectual basis.”
And so the public should be saying to their politicians that [they] insist he be brought home.
He is an Australian citizen. You can’t abrogate your responsibilities to him. You need to protect him. You need to stand up and show some fortitude and stop being so spineless in your attitude.
Politicians being, generally speaking, as fickle as they are, they will be worried about repercussions electorally. We saw it in the David Hicks case, where Hicks was portrayed as someone he wasn’t — the worst of the worst in Guantanamo Bay that has to be prosecuted first — well we knew that that was just a nonsense and a sham.
They did the same with the Jack Thomas case where they portrayed him as Osama bin Laden’s white boy in Australia. That was a nonsense, never capable of any vindication.
Jack Thomas was exonerated completely.
And so there was a groundswell of support in both of those cases. It took a long time and I think these things build on each other. We can see by the number [of] people here tonight that this has really resonated in the Australian community.
Julia Gillard … has misread the public’s view on this. She has seriously misread it.
I think the Australian community wants people to stand up for their fellow citizens, particularly when there is no wrongdoing capable of being substantiated.
If Julian Assange is returned to Australia, will it protect him from extradition to the US?
That’s an interesting question. Politically, you wouldn’t have much confidence in the government. You wouldn’t want them to simply capitulate in the way they have previously.
But, we have a protocol in place that says we will not extradite to a country where there is a risk of capital punishment or execution.
If they say Assange has been involved in an act of espionage, or that he’s infringed US national security interests, and he is at risk of execution, then the Australian government could not extradite him.
I think they would be acting unlawfully if they allowed that to occur.
So we want him brought home and we want him protected.
Would you like to say something to those Australians watching?
It is critically important that you agitate with your local member of parliament. They are your representatives. If you think what has happened to Julian Assange is unfair, let alone unlawful, then speak to your local politician and demand and insist that he be returned safely to Australia.