The United States has resumed its extradition campaign against Australian journalist Julian Assange with renewed fervor. In January this year, UK district judge Vanessa Baraitser had blocked a US extradition request — not on the basis that extradition threatened press freedom but that, in light of conditions in the US prison system, Assange would be at risk of suicide should he be transferred. Not to be deterred, the United States launched its appeal of the ruling on October 27, and the decision is due to be announced this month.
In all this, the Australian government has been disturbingly quiet. That Assange is an Australian citizen seems to count for nothing when it is the United States that is baying for blood. As early as 2010, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was so eager to please what she called “our best mates” in Washington that she suggested that Assange’s passport could be seized — until it was pointed out to her that this would be against the law. When asked about Assange’s arrest in 2019, current prime minister Scott Morrison simply said that “he should face the music.” Evidently the Australian government has abnegated all responsibility to protect one of its citizens from unlawful extradition.
The sheer extremity of the US campaign against Assange continues to come to light. In September, a bombshell report by Yahoo! News detailed a plot by the CIA to kidnap and assassinate Assange during his stay in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2017. The plot describes the US intelligence services’ response to the release of US state secrets, including war crimes committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the manual for the Guantanamo prison camp, and the capabilities of US intelligence to hack into consumer goods for espionage purposes.
Mike Pompeo, then head of the CIA, has publicly called WikiLeaks “a Non-State Hostile Intelligence Service,” a designation which gave tacit support for the aggressive tactics proposed by the intelligence service against Julian Assange. These extreme measures were considered at the highest levels of the US government, and only rejected out of concern for its effect on the extradition trial, according to the Yahoo! News report.
In addition, Icelandic investigative journal Stundin released an expose in June of a key witness in the case, Sigurdur Ingi Thordarson. Thordarson, has publicly admitted to fabricating his claims that Assange instructed him to hack into Icelandic government systems. He has also been convicted of both sexual abuse of minors and financial fraud. In his interview with Stundin, he admitted to continuing his crimes while working with the US Department of Justice, under a promise of immunity from prosecution.
This means that the veracity of the indictment of Assange presented to the Magistrate court in the UK (which, if convicted, would have Assange facing a 175-year prison sentence) is directly contradicted by its principle witness. The Swedish case against him regarding rape allegations have also been dropped, following the reopening of the investigation in 2019, however this was due to the large lapse of time between the alleged assault in 2010 and the investigation. Assange has always denied these allegations.
The extremity of the US intelligence agencies’ plot against Assange indicates their true motive: protecting US actions from scrutiny. In this regard, the Australian government has been entirely complicit, in effect giving Assange to the Americans, while turning a blind eye to his rights as an Australian citizen.
In Australia, a conspicuous hush has descended. A bipartisan parliamentary group called “Bring Julian Assange Home” has reported that only 29 of the current 226 senators and members of parliament support freeing Julian Assange. This means that an overwhelming majority of current Australian politicians believe a foreign power should have the ability to prosecute Australian journalists. A petition to free Assange, one of the largest to ever be tabled in Parliament, had over two hundred thousand signatures, but was largely ignored.
In their federal platforms, both major parties pay lip service to “a society where individuals are free to pursue their individual goals” (Liberals) and “a democratic nation that always upholds the freedom and privacy of its citizens” (Labor). Yet the emptiness of these words is revealed by the quietism with regard to Assange himself.
Apart from a few lone voices, there are painfully few Australians who are willing to publicly defend Assange and his basic right for protection. Even the Bring Julian Assange Home parliamentary group refuses a principled stance. Instead, their campaign stipulates that the leaks are not of concern specifically because they have not “placed Australian interests or personnel at risk.” This implies that were the leaks evidence of Australian wrongdoing (or the euphemistic “Australian interest”), this minority parliamentary group would sing a different tune.
Since the January ruling against extradition to the United States rests upon concern for Assange’s mental health in the harsh US prison system, rather than protection of press freedom, the United States has stated that Assange could serve his prison sentence in Australia — albeit following a court hearing in the United States. The Australian government has not commented on this, and there is reason to be suspicious of such a proposal. Assange’s own lawyers have stated that the proposal is meaningless, as Assange “will most likely be dead” before any such prison transfer could take place.
Indeed, this diplomatic offering, following Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s addressing of the issue in her visit to Washington DC in September, is by no means binding. A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs reports that they have “expectations that Mr Assange is entitled to due process, humane and fair treatment, access to proper medical and other care, and access to his legal team.” This comes almost a year after the UN Rapporteur on torture dubbed Assange a “political prisoner” and said that “[he] showed typical signs of prolonged exposure to psychological torture”.
Without an active intervention on the behalf of Assange, the Foreign Affairs Department’s commitment to a fair trial (a fundamental human right) is empty words. It is clear that throughout the saga of Assange’s decade of persecution, no such right has been respected.
Alliance Above All Else
That the Australian government has remained so extraordinarily passive in the face of the unlawful treatment of Assange shows the lengths it will go in order to protect its alliance with the United States. Indeed, many of the crimes that WikiLeaks exposed, especially with regard to the wars in the Middle East, are in danger of implicating Australia as well, a country facing its own allegations of war crimes; Australia has been following the United States into a string of wars for over sixty years.
Australia’s uncritical commitment to the US alliance was recently on show when the Morrison government ripped up its pre-existing military contract with France to make a deal with the United States instead, strengthening its ties with Washington at the expense of its relationship with Paris. With anti-China sentiment on the rise in the context of a New Cold War, the Australian government repeatedly reinforces its loyalty to Washington. It should come as no surprise, then, that under these circumstances the government will not take action against the United States, no matter how much it oversteps its legitimacy.
For the Australian government, protecting its alliance with the United States is paramount. Assange embarrassed the US government by exposing the web of brutality, illegal surveillance and violence that characterizes US day-to-day activities. For laying bare this reality Assange is facing a lifetime in prison, psychological torture, and relentless persecution. All those who care about transparency, democracy, and freedom of the press should be in solidarity with Assange. As this case demonstrates, however, none of those principles are priorities for the Australian government.