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Monique Ryan: Assange is a test of US friendship

November 04, 2023 IN WIP
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The relationship between Australia and the United States has long been cordial and productive. Founded in the same era, both post-colonial democracies and now partners in a 70-year military alliance, we share both our language and our cultural affinities. That relationship has, however, had challenges from its earliest days. In 1804 an Australian sealer, Joseph Murrell, was seized and held captive by a group of Americans who were also hoping to harvest the rich seal colonies of King Island. He described feeling that they were determined “to take such satisfaction of me as should make me dread the sight of an American if I lived”.

More than two centuries later, Julian Assange likely feels the same way. The computer hacker turned editor and activist has been pursued by the US government since 2010, when he published a massive trove of US State Department documents on his not-for-profit website, WikiLeaks. Those 250,000 confidential cables, provided to him by former US military analyst Chelsea Manning, disclosed alleged war crimes, diplomatic scandals and other misconduct by the US government in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Those documents have been uniquely damaging and embarrassing for the US intelligence services – hence their relentless attempts to secure Assange’s extradition to the US from Britain, where he remains in solitary confinement, in a cell the size of a parking space in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison.

In September I travelled to Washington as part of a parliamentary delegation to advocate on Assange’s behalf. The parliamentary delegation, which travelled at its own cost or with support from the Assange Campaign, included members from across the Australian political divide – Labor, independent, Greens, National and Liberal. We were accompanied by Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton. Over two days, we met with Assange’s US- and UK-based lawyers, the Australian ambassador and embassy staff, representatives from the US State Department and Department of Justice, and numerous Democrat and Republican members of Congress. We also talked with human rights and civil liberty organisations. Our message to all was simple. Julian Assange must be allowed to return home: for his benefit, for the benefit of Australia–US relations and for the greater good of press freedom internationally.

Many of the arguments against Assange have been discounted over time. His personality and behaviour – even his personal hygiene – have been maligned, but the accusations made against him have never been substantiated. It’s been said he’s not a journalist and yet he has received multiple international media prizes, and a Walkley Award. It’s been claimed he placed people’s lives at risk with the publication of confidential documents, but at Chelsea Manning’s trial in 2013 the US State Department explicitly acknowledged it had “no concrete examples of any individual having suffered harm or being exposed to serious threat as a consequence of the publications”.

Assange’s lawyer, London-based Australian Jennifer Robinson, has argued his indictment represents “the most terrifying threat to freedom of speech in the 21st-century”. When she spoke at the National Press Club last year, Robinson repeatedly referred to claims that in 2017 the CIA plotted to kidnap or assassinate Assange while he was a political refugee in London. She suggested that, if extradited, he might be subjected to special administrative measures, a regime of extreme isolation described by human rights groups as inhumane and possibly amounting to torture.

The past 14 years have been hard for Assange. Initially confined in the Ecuadorian embassy, and more recently in Belmarsh Prison, he has grown increasingly frail. During this period, he has married and had two sons, Gabriel and Max. His wife, Stella, has expressed concerns about his deteriorating physical and mental health. He had a minor stroke in 2021. Stella Assange has said she believes he will commit suicide if extradited to maximum-security conditions in the US. Nils Melzer, the former UN special rapporteur on torture, has described the ongoing “cruel and unusual punishment” of Julian Assange as “slow-motion murder”.

Our delegation to the US capital last month was, as far as we could tell, unprecedented in Australian political history – and this fact proved powerful. The Americans we met were greatly impressed by the commitment of six Australian members of parliament travelling to advocate for a single Australian citizen. They were intrigued by our bipartisanship on this matter, in the face of our disagreement on almost all other things political. Universally, their impression had been that the Morrison government had washed its hands of Julian Assange – and that most Australians had done the same.

However, the unity of our group reflects the relative unity of Australian opinion about Assange and his fate. An Essential poll conducted last year suggested almost nine out of 10 Australians believed it was past time for him to be freed.

There have been mixed messages from the US government this year: Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Australia, flagged a possible plea deal in August. More recently, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, stipulated Assange’s alleged actions “risked very serious harm to our national security, to the benefit of our adversaries, and put named human sources at grave risk of physical harm, grave risk of detention”.

President Joe Biden has indicated he is committed to an independent Department of Justice, but his administration’s continued pursuit of Assange seems at odds with the treatment of Chelsea Manning. The whistleblower’s sentence was commuted by then president Barack Obama in 2017 after she had served three years in jail, having pled guilty to 10 charges. The US stance on Assange also seems incongruous given the absence of repercussions for the major newspapers that published the WikiLeaks documents – including The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and other global media outlets – and Biden’s own statement that “journalists are indispensable to the functioning of democracy”.

Unlike previous Australian leaders, Anthony Albanese has consistently backed Assange. He said publicly – before and after becoming prime minister – that this affair had gone on too long. Last week, in his first state visit to Washington, he pressed for Assange’s release. He said that in private talks with the US president he had repeated his view that “enough is enough”, though he has not publicly demanded Biden intervene in the justice process.

Politically, pressure is growing on the US government to drop the extradition proceedings. In April, a group of US politicians wrote a congressional letter to their attorney-general, Merrick Garland, suggesting “the charges against Mr. Assange pose a grave and unprecedented threat to everyday, constitutionally protected journalistic activity, and that a conviction would represent a landmark setback for the First Amendment”. Our Australian delegation carried a letter signed by 64 of our parliamentary colleagues, which also appeared as a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post, asking that the prosecution of Assange end immediately. A similar letter has now been prepared by two of the senior Congress members we met in September – representatives Jim McGovern (a Democrat from Boston) and Thomas Massie (a Republican from Kentucky), who are seeking bipartisan support for their request to President Biden and Garland.

Julian Assange is an Australian citizen. He has won awards in Australia and internationally for his journalism. His prosecution in the US would raise concerning questions about the precedent set for journalists anywhere around the globe should they publish truthful information in the public interest if that information is at odds with the US government’s perception of its own interest.

Under the Trump and Biden administrations the Department of Justice has not clarified how Assange’s alleged felonies differ in any meaningful way – legally or practically – from other forms of investigative journalism involving matters of national security. In such matters, journalists seek out and publish information that authorities would prefer kept secret, and they take steps to protect the confidentiality of their sources. Australia has a long and proud tradition of journalists upholding truth, from Keith Murdoch, the Balibo Five and Kate McClymont, to Peter Greste, Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie. We need that sort of journalism. At a time of increasing disinformation and decreasing trust in government, if we don’t protect journalists, they can’t tell us what we need to know.

We made the point in the US that our governments’ compliance with these proceedings renders dubious their advocacy for other journalists and writers detained internationally – including Australian Yang Hengjun in China, and the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich in Russia. We spoke with our US peers of our respect for their First Amendment right of free press and free speech, and echoed the words of their third president Thomas Jefferson, who said “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”.

We also highlighted the potential for Australians to see this situation as an indicator of the health of the diplomatic ties between our countries. Many Australians feel uncertainty about our security situation – many have doubts about the wisdom of the AUKUS agreement. It doesn’t help if we feel disrespected in what has always been an unequal but amicable relationship. If the extradition request is approved, Australians will witness the deportation of one of our citizens from one AUKUS partner to another – our closest strategic allies – with Assange facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. The case represents an important test of our relationship with the US, and of our government’s ability to advocate on behalf of its citizens with our allies.

This situation is one of politics, not of law. The prosecution of Julian Assange is not just about him but is an attempt by the US government to divert public attention from its spying and its war crimes. The persecution of Assange is intended to deter other whistleblowers from exposing the crimes of governments. When asked about his motivations in 2011, Assange said, “The goal is justice, the method is transparency.” In a speech that same year, he said, “If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.”

Our world needs peace and truth – possibly more now than at any other time in history. It’s upon us all to do what we can for justice and for transparency.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as “Assange is a test of US friendship”.

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International