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The politicians awake: Australia calls for Julian Assange

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Australia's politicians are advocating for the return of Julian Assange to his home country (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australians from both the public and political sectors are becoming increasingly vocal in bringing Julian Assange home, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

JULIAN ASSANGE has rarely been the flavour of the month for Australian politicians. Being the spoke in the wheel of international relations, the mote in the eye of Australia’s great and unquestioned ally, the United States, there was always a feeling that siding with his cause might not be such a good idea. Cocktail invitations might be withdrawn. Sharing arrangements might be challenged. Career politicians, civil servants and academics have, to that end, regarded the Australian publisher as a poisoned chalice, best reviled rather than praised.  

When over a quarter of a million U.S. cables sourced from the State Department trove were published by WikiLeaks, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was keen to show a degree of obeisance for those in Washington. “The foundation stone of it is an illegal act,” she said rather unpersuasively. “It would not happen, information would not be on WikiLeaks, if there had not been an illegal act undertaken.” 

At the time of these ill-considered mutterings, the Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, hardly the country’s most celebrated standard-bearer for human rights, took issue with language he regarded as “clumsy”:

“As far as I can see he (Assange) hasn’t broken any Australian law.” 

Even more strikingly, it did not appear to the future Attorney-General that Assange had “broken any American laws”.

In a subsequent referral to the Australian Federal Police, Gillard received news that should have been self-evident: 

“The Government believed that it was appropriate to refer the matter to the Australian Federal Police. We’ve done that now. We’ve received the advice and the advice is that there have been no breaches of Australian law.”

Much noxious water has crossed under the bridge since then and Australia’s political classes have seen the Assange chronicle grow hefty. He has spent time in the Ecuadorian embassy, been arrested, charged and convicted for bail offences, had an investigation into sexual assault by Swedish prosecutors dropped and a wad of charges centred on the U.S. Espionage Act thrown at him in an extradition case. His deteriorating health and evident fragility have started to prod an Australian conscience long-frozen to him.

Petitions launched in Assange’s name. A current Change.org petition to ‘Free Julian Assange, before it’s too late’ seeks 300,000 signatures. Started by Phillip Adams, it has garnered almost 220,000 signatures to date. Others have also made their journey to Parliament, where they have been published in Hansard.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, himself an unwittingly featured star in the WikiLeaks Cablegate exposé, has had a change of heart.

In a letter to the Bring Julian Assange Home Queensland Network, Rudd saw Assange and his activities as synonymous with those of conventional media outlets: 

‘If [the U.S. prosecutors’] case is essentially that Mr Assange broke the law by obtaining and disclosing secret information, then I struggle to see what separates him from any journalist who solicits, obtains and publishes such information.’

Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has also had a Damascus conversion, though his seems particularly opportunistic. He had been openly hostile to Assange, sceptical about his “amoral” activities he could barely call journalism. His published diaries show a man keen to deceive the Australian public over his handling of Assange’s requests for consular assistance. 

Ironically enough, Carr would find himself in hot water for a very WikiLeaks-styled incident, accused of disclosing sensitive security matters by recounting details of his own time in office. In one case, Carr revealed, much to the irritation of U.S. officials, ‘a cable based on CIA sources’ profiling Zintan militia fighters holding the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, who had been accused of espionage in Libya.

In Andrew Fowler’s piquant observation for The Interpreter published by the Lowy Institute:

‘Carr’s moral position, if nothing else, has entered what former CIA Counter-Terrorism head James Angleton called “the wilderness of mirrors”.’

From the wilderness of mirrors, Carr now tells us that ordinary citizens would be “deeply uneasy” about an Australian being given a “living hell of lifetime sentence in an American penitentiary”.

He even took it upon himself to castigate current Foreign Minister Marise Payne that she had made “friendly” representations on behalf of the WikiLeaks publisher to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

“I think the issue will gather pace, an in the ultimate trial there will be a high level of Australian public concern, among conservative voters as much as others.”

One person has never tired of taking to the stage for Assange. He was of the clear-eyed brigade, never muddled about deep state matters and the bullying interests of Washington.  Being himself a former member of the Australian intelligence community, Andrew Wilkie’s voice has added merit.

Last month, the Tasmanian independent rose in the House to remind his colleagues “that every citizen should be treated equally in the eyes of the law, but that’s not simply the case for Australian citizen Julian Assange.” He had “reported on war crimes in Iraq and normally when an Australian speaks out about war crimes they should be seen as patriotic and treated as a hero”. If only.

Assange’s continuing detainment at the maximum-security prison at Belmarsh had created conditions “consistent with psychological torture”. His extradition to the United States, should it happen, would see him face “serious human rights violations, including exposure to torture and a dodgy trial”.

Wilkie is sharing the burden of calling for Assange’s return with the Member for Dawson, Queensland MP George Christensen. The occasionally erratic co-Chair of the Parliamentary Working Group dedicated to advocating for Assange is clear that the WikiLeaks publisher faces a “crazy situation”, one where he published information supposedly in breach of laws in a country “that they’re not a citizen of, that they actually haven’t set foot in”.

The Australian Government remains cool in the face of pressure. Legal processes must be followed. Assange is receiving the assistance he needs. A letter from Senator Payne, published in Hansard in response to a petition for Assange, notes that the Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs ‘has either provided or offered consular assistance to Mr Assange on more than 100 occasions since 2010’. Australia, as outlined in the Consular Services Charter could not ‘intervene in the legal process of another country, just as we would not tolerate another country seeking to do the same in Australia. Mr Assange has legal representation’.

Hardly comforting, showing the continued unwillingness to engage the WikiLeaks matter at the government level. That said, the growing number of individual calls is gaining momentum and, given his deteriorating health, is flavoured by a note of terrible urgency.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

JUSTICE FOR JULIAN - EVENT

Julian Assange's father John Shipton, together with former anti-war prisoner of U.S. Ciaron O'Reilly, will appear at a public event supported by Independent Australia and the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties (QCCL), at Kurilpa Hall, Brisbane, at 7 pm on Wednesday, 11 December 2019. Tickets only $10 available HERE.

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