The legal case against Julian Assange is a game of luck and whim. Any day now, the British home secretary, Priti Patel, is expected to rubber stamp his extradition to the United States. What will happen to him there is uncertain.
The Westminster Magistrates’ Court formally approved his extradition on April 20 and Patel has until May 31 to announce whether it will happen. If convicted of espionage in the US, Assange could be sentenced to 175 years in prison. His legal team argue he would likely kill himself.
There is one glimmer of hope for the WikiLeaks founder, however, bound up in last weekend’s Australian election result. The victory of Anthony Albanese, a supporter of the journalist, has reignited calls to halt the extradition.
Albanese has said that while he didn’t sympathise with Assange for some of his actions, he could not see any purpose to keeping him in jail.
“The prime minister, Mr Albanese, has previously said ‘enough is enough’. [Then shadow] Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus issued a statement last year confirming that Labor wanted the matter ‘brought to an end’,” says lawyer and human rights activist Kellie Tranter, who is a former WikiLeaks Party senate candidate. “So it remains to be seen whether such statements will result in the new government requesting that the US drop the case.”
She was “cautiously optimistic” about the case of Assange, who faces 17 charges under the US Espionage Act relating to the publication of classified documents and information related to US war crimes.
“It is helpful that the Greens – who have been calling for the Australian government to take action in the Assange case for some time – may hold the balance of power in the senate,” Tranter added.
Earlier this week, Albanese travelled to Japan for a meeting of the Quad leaders – from India, Japan, the US and Australia – to deliver a message about Australia’s policy changes.
Supporters including Tranter had urged the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to include the whistleblower on the agenda, and not just as a sideline issue.
The meeting was the “ideal opportunity” for Albanese to speak with US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request that Assange be allowed to come home, said Greg Barns SC, an adviser to the Australian Assange campaign.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet said they were unable to provide comment on Quad agenda items. Comment was being sought from DFAT.
Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in Belmarsh prison this year and is the mother of their two children, told The Saturday Paper the case had become political. She insisted the government had a duty to protect its citizens.
“By failing to act, it’s not just negligent; it shows that whoever is in office that isn’t acting is not fit for office,” the human rights lawyer said. “This can end today if the Australian government decides to do something about it.”
Every human rights organisation in the world had said the extradition of the Townsville-born computer hacker, editor and publisher should be stopped, she said. The latest to speak out is the Council of Europe.
Earlier this month, then Foreign Affairs minister Marise Payne and her Labor shadow, Penny Wong, claimed Australia couldn’t intervene, as the matter was before the courts.
But former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, speaking to The Saturday Paper, rubbished the claim. The MP pleaded to Australia to “speak up for your own”.
“Whilst in Britain there are – for good reason – constraints about raising [it] in parliament because it’s a sub judice matter, that does not apply in Australia,” Corbyn said.
“There is no legal case in Australia. So there’s nothing to stop every Australian politician speaking up with Julian Assange, and I think they should. Please do, because it will help the freedom for journalists everywhere.”
Barns said there was “plenty of political support” for Albanese to ensure the whistleblower does not face an effective death penalty in the US. He pointed out that the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group had 30 members from every party before the election. This is expected to increase, Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, said.
“Ultimately I don’t think Albo wants to become another Australian prime minister who is complicit in Julian’s persecution and more broadly the Western descent into barbarity that has been taking place ever since the Iraq invasion,” he said. “Whether he has the power to resist that is up to us.”
A spokesperson for DFAT said the government had “consistently raised the situation of Mr Assange with the United States and the United Kingdom”. The spokesperson said the government “conveyed our 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”. However, “The extradition case regarding Julian Assange is between the United States and the United Kingdom; Australia is not a party to this case.”
US–Australian relations are one of many matters that will test Albanese’s leadership. According to Tranter, freedom of information requests show “that consecutive governments have long held the view that the Assange case has strategic implications for the alliance”. She says this is why no Australian government had spoken out in support of his human rights or provided diplomatic assistance to him.
“Mr Albanese should take a stand consistent with his stated ethos of protecting the persecuted and not forsake any Australian citizen to personal abuse for political purposes,” Tranter said.
As he awaits his fate, Assange is incarcerated in London’s maximum security Belmarsh prison. He was taken there after seven years in the Ecuador embassy in London, where he sought asylum to prevent extradition to Sweden over now-abandoned sexual assault allegations.
“Assange’s appeal is like a game of extradition snakes and ladders,” says Nick Vamos, the former head of extradition at Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service. “He managed to take his argument about US prison conditions all the way to the door of the Supreme Court, but they rejected it, so he slid back down to the magistrates’ court where he started.”
Assange “can’t climb that particular ladder again”, Vamos says. “But he can still appeal on the other grounds that he lost originally, so there are likely to be a few more ups and downs before this process is finally over.”
The partner and head of business crime at London firm Peters & Peters said the attempts to persuade Home Secretary Patel not to order the extradition would not be successful – “not in a million years”.
Vamos says that if there is another appeal in Britain it could take another six months to be heard. If it is denied, another avenue is the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France, which could issue an order directing Britain not to extradite Assange until its case is heard.
Jennifer Robinson, part of Assange’s legal team, has confirmed this is a path being considered.
“This case is too important from a free speech point of view, but also from a humanitarian point of view,” she said.
“We know what the medical evidence is about Julian’s mental health, and that he will find a way to commit suicide if he’s extradited.”
In all, Vamos says, these appeals could take another two years. But once Assange’s extradition has been signed off, he says, US Marshals are free to fly to Britain to arrest Assange: “It will normally happen within a couple of weeks of Patel making the order.”
At an EU Free Assange rally in Brussels, on April 23, Assange’s wife wiped away tears as she spoke to the crowd. The event was aimed at targeting European leaders, with speeches by politicians from various countries. “In the end this will end up in Europe,” Stella Assange said. “Europe can free Julian. Europe must free Julian.”
She recalled that 15 years into his 27-year imprisonment, people thought Nelson Mandela would never be liberated. “But he was, because decent people in that case came out and they shouted for his freedom, even if they were the only person in the square to shout,” she said.
“The fact is, it takes a few decent people to show the way and what we stand for, because we create the reality around us.”
Activists were defending “not just decency and the memory” of all the tens of thousands of victims of the Iraq and Afghan war, caught up in the crimes that WikiLeaks exposed; they were also standing up for the right to a free future.
“What has been done to Julian is a crime,” Stella Assange said. “The law is being abused in order to keep him incarcerated, year after year, for doing the right thing … When will it end? Will it end?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "‘When will it end?’".
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