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Assange: What Australia is not doing to save its citizen and media freedom

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Given its inaction on the Assange case, Australia risks being remembered as a complicit ally in the war on journalism launched by the Trump Administration, especially now that the hopes for a pardon have vanished.

Just before leaving the White House, Donald Trump granted pardons to 73 people and commuted the sentences of 70 other individuals, but the name of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was not there. Now that the official clemency list has removed the hope for a presidential pardon for Assange, we will see how those ones who consider Trump a free speech fighter will justify the decision.

More importantly, it’s crucial to identify other possible people who could assist in stopping a prosecution that, according to the British National Union of Journalists General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet, is focused against “actions that are commonplace for investigative journalists” and, if successful, “will chill the media worldwide”.

Calls from Tucker Carlson, Pamela Anderson and many others for Assange to be pardoned have followed one another in the last few weeks. Among them also the moving tweets of Edward Snowden, who could himself have been on Trump’s list but joined Assange among the names of the excluded ones. 

Even Assange’s Australian lawyer, Greg Barns, who spoke with us just a few days before the list was released, believed in the possibility of a pardon, but he also highlighted the responsibilities of the other great party involved in the case: the Australian Government.

Barns said:

“The UK courts have rightly recognised that extradition for Julian means he would die in a United States prison. It is a welcome decision and yet again shows why the Australian Government must speak to its Washington counterparts and end the human rights abuse against this Australian citizen.”

After providing legal advice for Assange in the last few years, Barns is now “very heavily involved” in the Australian Assange campaign, supporting the father of the WikiLeaks founder in the fight against extradition:

“The refusal to grant bail makes our request to the Australian Government more urgent — Belmarsh Prison is no place for a person with mental and physical health issues. It is a cruel environment.”

At the beginning of January, the tweets of Assange’s fiancée Stella Moris alarmed many over their revelations on the way prisoners face cold temperatures in the cells:

‘Just heard from Julian. It's freezing in his cell. The hot water pipe system in Belmarsh prison broke.’

Barns had no doubts:

“We should consider this as a serious breach of human rights. The reality is that Belmarsh Prison is not fit for service, it should be closed. It’s a harsh environment and it is outrageous that in 2020 in a wealthy country like the UK you have people that have to use newspapers and cardboard up against windows because it is so cold.”

An expert in prison law, Barns said that the international conventions and standards on the treatment of prisoners include making sure that prisoners are treated humanely and should be abided by the UK authorities.

What Australia could do

When it is about understanding if Australia could do something to save its citizen, it is useful to consider similar cases.

Barns explained:

“We saw recently the Australian Government move to rescue Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic. She had been jailed in Iran for some years, they were able to get her free and get her back to Australia.”

So Barns’ point is, when the Australian Government wants to do something, it will do it. And there is something that it should be doing or should have been doing some years ago. 

He continued:

Australia is very close to Washington and very close to London. They were the key allies for our country and we have got a reputation among these countries which is good. And so we can use that leverage to say: ‘Look, when it comes to Assange, we don’t want to see any Australian citizen facing a death penalty or the effective death penalty which is 175 years in jail’. It's disproportionate – even if you believe the crimes – and we want to see him coming back to Australia and staying with his family.

So this is the step that Scott Morrison’s government could take and there are calls in Australia for it to do it. For instance, there is a parliamentary group, similar to other ones formed in Europe to monitor the Assange case, which has been calling for this. 

When Barns spoke with me, there was still time for a pardon and he stated:

“The other thing the Australian Government could do, quietly in Washington through its embassy, is urging Donald Trump to pardon Julian Assange. That's something that governments can do and it's something that the Australian one should be doing through the Washington embassy.”

Now that this possibility is gone, the same step could be taken to call for the Biden Administration to drop the charges.

Australia has done very little in this case, even in the past. As Barns recalled, the previous Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, made sure that Assange got a new passport; however, it was certainly not enough to protect this citizen.

What is ironic is the fact that recently in Australia, a number of journalists received awards because they have published some pretty graphic footage of Australian soldiers allegedly committing war crimes in Afghanistan.

Barns noted:

“Everybody has been saying ‘oh, this is fantastic, we get it with the free media’ and everybody is forgetting that this is exactly what Julian Assange did and yet he finds himself facing possibly 175 years in jail.”

A case that treats the very heart of democracy. Who else could act?

What this case is trying to say is that “if powers like the U.S. and China and other very powerful nations don’t like what has been published about themselves, they can extradite you,” Barns explained. This is essentially the reason why we can say that it is about freedom of speech. “It’s chilling to know that journalists could find themselves on the end of an extradition request,” the Australian lawyer said.

It’s true that a government could stand up to defend them. However, as we saw, this not always happens.

Barns pointed out:

“You can't always trust governments and in any event, who wants to be in that position? That’s why it is a very critical event. I don’t know any other case like it when it comes to freedom of speech cases in recent times. This is unprecedented and that’s why it's so dangerous.”

In other words, this case threatens the very heart of democracy, which is keeping governments accountable. And as Barns highlights, keeping them “particularly accountable in the context of wars and abuses of power”.

Now, the possibility to save both Assange and media freedom lies on the decisions of the Australian Government. If the charges against the WikiLeaks founder are not dropped, freedom of the press is still at risk everywhere because his extradition to the United States was only denied on mental health grounds, which avoided any connection with the right of the public to become aware of the facts revealed by WikiLeaks.

This means that the other governments all around the world should not feel discharged from the responsibilities. Pushing the Australian Government to stand for its citizen seems to be a duty for all of them, if they define themselves as “democracies”.

Sara Chessa is a UK-based independent journalist. You can follow Sara on Twitter @sarachessa1.

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