According to those closest to him, Julian Assange has one last chance.
Next month, in Britain, two High Court judges will decide whether or not he can appeal against his extradition to the United States.
“And if it doesn’t go Julian’s way, then that’s it,” his brother, Gabriel Shipton, tells The Saturday Paper. “He doesn’t have any other avenues in the British courts.
“They could move to extradite him very quickly at that point. They could even have an aeroplane waiting on the tarmac. They’ve done that in the past, when Julian was fighting extradition on previous occasions.
“Julian would rather commit suicide than then go to the United States, because he knows what awaits him there.”
In a legal sense, what awaits is a trial over his role in revealing the contents of hundreds of thousands of US State Department cables and military files given to WikiLeaks by former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
Assange was charged in 2019 on 17 counts of violating the US Espionage Act of 1917 and faces up to 175 years’ imprisonment.
In truth, says Labor MP Josh Wilson, what Assange really stands accused of is “disseminating the truth”. His prosecution was always political, Wilson argues, and it is time to end it.
Wilson is one of four co-convenors of the multipartisan Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group. The other three are Liberal Bridget Archer, independent Andrew Wilkie and the Greens’ David Shoebridge.
Last week, the four wrote to the British home secretary, James Cleverly, urging an intervention that could stop the extradition and possibly save Assange’s life.
Their letter called for an “urgent, thorough and independent assessment of the risks to Mr Assange’s health and welfare in the event he is extradited to the United States”, adding that the assessment “should include a close review of the risks to Mr Assange’s health, life and wellbeing through prolonged detention in one or more high security US detention facilities”.
The argument that Assange’s health should prevent extradition is not a new one. Indeed, in January 2021, a British District Court judge, Vanessa Baraitser, accepted expert testimony that he would be at risk of suicide in a US prison.
“The overall impression is of a depressed and sometimes despairing man, who is genuinely fearful about his future,” she said at the time. “I find that the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
Baraitser’s decision was subsequently overturned by the High Court. However, a recent decision by an even higher court, the British Supreme Court, has given new hope to those pushing for Assange’s extradition to be prevented on mental health grounds.
Oddly, the basis of the parliamentary group’s letter to Cleverly was a Supreme Court decision entirely unrelated to Assange. In November, Britain’s Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeal ruling that the British government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful. That plan was inspired in large part by Australia’s action in sending boat people to offshore processing.
In a unanimous decision, the justices agreed there had not been a proper assessment of whether Rwanda was a safe place to send those asylum seekers.
In essence, says Greg Barns, a barrister who has worked on Assange’s case and helped draft the letter to Cleverly, the court did not trust assurances by the Rwandan government that the human rights of the people sent to Rwanda would not be breached.
“The UK didn’t look behind those assurances, just effectively accepted them,” says Barns. “What the Rwanda case says is that’s not good enough, that governments need to make their own inquiries about these assurances.”
Likewise in the Assange case, the High Court had simply accepted that Assange would not come to harm should he be sent to the US.
According to the letter, it had relied on US assurances “as to Mr Assange’s safety and welfare should he be extradited to the United States for imprisonment and trial. These assurances were not tested, nor was there any evidence of independent assessment as to the basis on which they could be given and relied upon.”
The letter noted Assange “has significant health issues, exacerbated to a dangerous degree by his prolonged incarceration, that are of very real concern to us as his elected representatives”.
The Assange story started in 2010 with Chelsea Manning and the massive trove of documents she provided to WikiLeaks. They were in many cases embarrassing to the US and other governments, showing the often-cynical ways of power. In some cases, they were more than embarrassing – notably the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed an unprovoked attack by US helicopter gunships in Iraq on a group of unarmed civilians, killing several of them, including two Reuters journalists.
Although much of the material provided by Manning was published in major media outlets that partnered with WikiLeaks, including The New York Times, US authorities did not go after them. Instead they pursued Assange – although not, initially, for the publication of the Manning material.
The Obama administration, The New York Times reported in 2019, considered charging Assange under the Espionage Act for publishing government secrets but decided that doing so “would chill investigative journalism and could be struck down as unconstitutional”.
Instead, he was charged with conspiring to commit unlawful computer intrusion, based on an alleged agreement to try to help Manning hack into a classified military network.
“Because traditional journalistic activity does not extend to helping a source break a code to gain illicit access to a classified network,” the Times wrote, “the charge appeared to be an attempt by prosecutors to sidestep the potential First Amendment minefield …”
The evidence that Assange actively helped or directed Manning was, in any case, very thin. Manning herself was quickly identified as the source of the leaks, tried and imprisoned from 2010 until 2017, when her sentence was commuted by then president Barack Obama. The pursuit of Assange, however, who had by then been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for five years, beyond the reach of extradition, did not end.
Instead, it became more heavy-handed. Under president Donald Trump, the US Justice Department lost its qualms about press freedom and charged Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing secret documents.
That was in early 2019. The legal process has been grinding on ever since. For all that time, Josh Wilson notes, Assange has been held in London’s Belmarsh prison “without having been convicted of any substantial charge”.
Meanwhile, as he further notes, Chelsea Manning is now free and the media organisations that published the information provided by Manning, via Assange, “have not been pursued”.
The persecution of Assange, he says, has driven an extraordinary cross-party effort to have the WikiLeaks founder freed.
“I think it reflects the broader view by many in the Australian community that it’s unacceptable,” Wilson says. “The Australian community expects parliamentarians … to keep the spotlight on the injustice of Julian’s situation and to apply pressure at every opportunity.”
Last April, 48 federal members and senators from across the political spectrum signed a strongly worded open letter to the US attorney-general, Merrick Garland, urging him to drop the effort to have Assange extradited.
“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 ally – with Mr Assange facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison,” the letter said.
“This would set a dangerous precedent for all global citizens, journalists, publishers, media organizations and the freedom of the press. It would also be needlessly damaging for the US as a world leader on freedom of expression and the rule of law.”
Last September, a cross-party delegation went to Washington to lobby members of congress. It included former deputy prime minister and Nationals member Barnaby Joyce, Labor MP Tony Zappia, Liberal senator Alex Antic, teal independent Monique Ryan, and Greens senators David Shoebridge and Peter Whish-Wilson.
The visit coincided with the release of another open letter, even stronger in its language and co-signed by 63 federal politicians.
It said, in part: “Together with a large and growing number of Australians we believe it is wrong in principle for Mr Assange to be pursued under the Espionage Act (1917), and that it was a political decision to bring the prosecution in the first place. In any case, this matter has dragged on for over a decade and it is wrong for Mr Assange to be further persecuted and denied his liberty when one considers the duration and circumstances of the detention he has already suffered.
“It serves no purpose, it is unjust, and we say clearly – as friends should always be honest with friends – that the prolonged pursuit of Mr Assange wears away at the substantial foundation of regard and respect that Australians have for the justice system of the United States of America.”
Australia has tried to exert pressure on both Britain and the US in other ways, too. Early in his tenure as Australia’s high commissioner to Britain, former Labor foreign minister Stephen Smith made a high-profile visit to Assange in Belmarsh. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, now ambassador to the US, has pushed the case for Assange’s freedom.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has repeatedly called for Assange’s release. Last May, while he was in Britain for the coronation of King Charles, he said in an interview: “It has been too long. And in my view, as I’ve said before, I see nothing is served from the further incarceration of Mr Assange.”
In November, Albanese confirmed he had personally raised the issue with US President Joe Biden. His position is supported by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.
According to the Liberal co-convenor of the parliamentary group, Bridget Archer, the politicians campaigning for Assange’s freedom come from different starting points.
Some don’t believe he is guilty of any crime, while others think that even if he is, he has been punished more than enough.
“I think what he’s been subjected to,” she says, “amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.”
The political unanimity is unprecedented, says Greg Barns. He recalls going in to give a briefing to the parliamentary group last year and being gobsmacked to see the parliament’s staunchest defender of the coal industry, Nationals Senator Matt Canavan, sitting next to Greens leader Adam Bandt. “I thought, Nowhere else would this happen.”
Barns says the campaign has had some effect. He notes, for example, that a growing number of US politicians now are pushing to have the case against Assange dropped.
As in Australia, they range across the ideological spectrum. Their number is relatively small in the scheme of things, however. A congressional letter sent to Biden last November had just 16 signatories.
Still, Assange’s brother believes support for the cause is growing in congress. “We’re lobbying quite intensely to get a hearing before the judiciary committee,” Gabriel Shipton says. “There is potential for the Department of Justice, for Merrick Garland, to be grilled on this case when he comes before the committee.”
That would increase the political pressure, Shipton says. It may get the cause more media attention and hopefully “get people thinking about this case and thinking about like, you know, why the fuck are we continuing on with this?”
Last July, at a joint media conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong restated Australia’s position that the Assange case had “dragged on far too long” and needed to be resolved in a way “that reflects also the position we articulate in private”.
Blinken pushed back, saying Assange was “charged with very serious criminal conduct”.
“I think it is very important that our friends here understand our concerns about this matter,” he said.
“The actions that he has alleged to have committed risked very serious harm to our national security, to the benefit of our adversaries, and put named human sources at grave risk – grave risk – of physical harm and grave risk of detention.”
While things may be changing behind the scenes, it is understandable that the Assange campaign is focusing on Britain.
On Tuesday, British High Commissioner to Australia Vicki Treadell was asked on ABC Radio whether the Assange matter had gone on too long.
“Well, it has gone on for a number of years,” she said. “And I think all parties would like to see a resolution.”
Barns and Shipton both see this as a significant shift.
“Previously the UK’s view was, ‘It’s a matter for the United States, nothing to do with us,’ ” says Barns. “Effectively, what she’s saying, her message to the US, is the same message that Albanese has been delivering, which is, ‘Let’s wrap this up.’ ”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 20, 2024 as "‘Julian would rather commit suicide than go to the US…’".
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