Saving Julian Assange
On Monday afternoon, an unlikely group of federal politicians will meet for the first time in Parliament House to strategise how they can bring home a man most of them concede is arrogant, deeply unlikeable and perhaps even worse.
The Parliamentary Friends of the Bring Julian Assange Home Group is a strange collection of sometime adversaries. Founded by Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie, it is co-chaired by both him and regional Queensland MP George Christensen. Wilkie describes their coming together as almost cosmic.
“It sort of happened organically; it was a bit like the Big Bang,” he says.
“Regrettably, Julian’s case has not been so much about the law, as it has become a political football. But this also provides an opportunity for a political solution.”
This week, Swedish authorities announced they would no longer be pursuing a final charge of sexual assault against Assange. It was neither an exoneration nor a finding – simply, too much time had passed to prosecute. But in a practical sense, the decision removed the final barrier placed before a more minimalist reading of Assange’s predicament.
There are now no outstanding matters that would complicate offers of assistance to the WikiLeaks founder and no other legal issues due for resolution.
Assange is currently being held in near-solitary confinement in London’s Belmarsh prison, awaiting a hearing to decide whether he will be extradited to the United States. There, he faces 18 counts of computer fraud and espionage law violation.
US prosecutors allege Assange conspired with former Defence intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack the password of a Defence Department computer and “obtain and disclose” classified national defence documents.
Wilkie distils the sprawling legal case as such: “There is a question mark over whether it is even legal for [Assange] to be extradited from the UK to America.
“The alleged offence did not occur in the United States, he is not a US citizen. Particularly now that the rape element has been dropped, the only substantive matter that remains is that he published details of US war crimes and is now at risk of being extradited to the country that committed the war crimes.”
It is this notion, loosely flowing from the legal principle of habeas corpus – literally “that you have the body” – which has brought Barnaby Joyce to the fray.
“I come at this from the pure legal principle and the fact of our own sovereignty,” the Nationals MP tells The Saturday Paper.
“If you are not in the country that has accused you of the crime, then this becomes an arbitrary process.”
Joyce, Wilkie and Christensen will be joined at the table on Monday by independent Zali Steggall, Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie and Rex Patrick, Labor’s Julian Hill and Steve Georganas, and Greens MPs Peter Whish-Wilson and Adam Bandt. They will be briefed by Julian Assange’s London-based lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Australian barrister Greg Barns.
“The Australian government faces a very stark choice. Are they prepared to see an Australian citizen hunted down by the Trump administration to face 175 years in prison? Or are we prepared to do what we did in the David Hicks case, which is to say, ‘No, he is one of ours’ and stand up to them,” Barns tells The Saturday Paper.
What the group doesn’t have yet, as far as membership, is anyone from the Liberal Party. While Barns is set to meet with some Liberal MPs next week, he won’t name names.
There is a reluctance, it seems, to be seen supporting Assange – not least because, in some corners of the internet, the views of his backers border on religious fanaticism.
Joyce says that when he addressed the Nationals party room about Assange he was met with mostly vacant stares and silence – except from an enthusiastic George Christensen.
“They agree but they’re not necessarily going to look like they agree,” says Joyce. “I’m disappointed with the silence on both sides of politics.”
But Barns thinks this is starting to change. “Like the Hicks case, these issues often take time to develop and I think there is increasing concern now in the Australian community that Julian is effectively facing the death penalty,” he says.
“The most immediate issue for us is Julian’s mental and physical health and his inability to prepare properly for his case. He is being held in an inhumane environment.”
A bright spot, says Barns, is that Assange has now received consular assistance from the Australian government.
As with many things in Julian Assange’s life, this is a story about global power and the choices governments make, or refuse to make, that may upset the accepted order.
This reality is not lost on the parliamentary group.
Joyce says he is worried about the precedent that would be set in Australia’s dealings with China if the government of which he is a member acquiesces on issues of legal principle to please an ally.
“I just say, be careful of sycophancy,” he says. “China takes it as a personal slight if we push back against them in any way. If we say nothing on things that concern us, they will push and push until we get to a point where there are sufficient problems and we have to say something about their behaviour.
“But if you want to push back, you need to have a precedent. If we say, ‘Yeah, it is okay for Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, to be punished by the United States when he wasn’t in that country or subject to its laws’, then what the hell do we tell China when they demand the same rights?
“And what do we tell Russia or any other country for that matter? That would be a very dangerous economic path to go down.”
Wilkie and Barns share this view.
“The fundamental tension in our relationship with the US and China was always bound to come to this,” says Wilkie.
“It’s frustrating to see that some politicians are starting to find a backbone and speak up about human rights abuses in China, but the same politicians are quite happy to see an Australian citizen carted off to the US and say nothing.”
Barns says it doesn’t matter if they think Assange is a pest.
“What we are asking politicians to do is to differentiate between [his] activities and the law,” he says.
“You might not like the actions of Julian Assange, you might not like Julian, but that is not the point. If Julian Assange were a prisoner in China, Andrew Hastie and those who have been very quick to criticise China would be hot-footing it to Beijing because of his treatment.
“It’s the sort of conduct we rightly condemn when it comes to China.”
For his part, Joyce has been consistent on this issue since the capture of David Hicks and his detention in Guantanamo Bay – a case that now bears remarkable similarities to Assange’s own.
In 2006, Hicks’s lawyers brought up habeas corpus in the Federal Court to compel the Australian government to request their client’s release from the US prison. In response, the Commonwealth responded with an application to summarily dismiss the suit, arguing it had no reasonable prospects of success.
The Australian public will never know what the court might have ultimately found, as Hicks was eventually released from prison in late 2007. However, Justice Brian Tamberlin did throw out the government’s application.
Hicks, charged with providing material support to terrorists, had an interesting case, which raised the prospect of an Australian court interfering in the foreign affairs of another country, potentially violating the Act of State doctrine or the non-justiciable principle.
On both counts, courts may decline to adjudicate matters if there is a risk of embarrassment or interference with sovereign nations.
In any case, Tamberlin found Hicks’s case was both within his jurisdiction and accepted the view that the Act of State doctrine does not “extinguish the right of a citizen to challenge their detention”.
Assange’s lawyers may yet decide to test those waters.
Hicks’s former partner, Aloysia Brooks, has this year been stalking the halls of Parliament House in Canberra alongside Julian Assange’s parents to drum up support for him.
Steep as the climb looks now, Wilkie says he is surprised the political momentum has brought them this far.
Parliamentary friendship groups, he explains, are not formal committees but they do have to meet some strict criteria. They must be truly cross-parliamentary in their membership and “generally not too controversial”, and leaders of both the senate and the house of representatives need to approve them.
“I was delighted that the presiding officers did approve it,” he says. “I must admit to some small surprise that they did.”
In their midst are so many benign groups – the parliamentary friends of cricket, of Western Australia, of “trucks, trailers, transport and logistics” and the sparsely named parliamentary friends of space. But there is also a friendship group for gun control and, to even things out, a friendship group for shooting.
“It’s fair to say ours might be the broadest church,” Wilkie says. “It took a very long time to get some members and to get the minimum number of 10 required. Now all that is missing are some pure Liberals.”
Time is of the essence. Assange’s extradition hearing has been set for February, after a London judge refused his plea for a delay.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Saving Assange".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.