WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains incarcerated in Belmarsh prison. 11 April 2023 marked the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment in the maximum security prison since police forcibly removed him from the Ecuadorian embassy. Before that, he spent seven years in the embassy, where he was granted asylum.
Assange’s legal team is currently appealing the decision by the UK home office to allow his extradition to the United States. There he will face charges, mostly relating to the Espionage Act, and 175 years imprisonment if found guilty.
However, there are at least two opportunities coming up that could affect the fate of Assange.
‘Enough is enough’
In an interesting development, Stephen Smith – the new Australian high commissioner – visited Assange in prison. This was the first time such a visit by the high commissioner has taken place. Smith said there will be further visits. Whether this signals a significant change in attitude by the Australian administration is impossible to determine at this stage.
Meanwhile, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese has stated:
I have made it clear the Australian government’s position, which is: enough is enough.
Canary guest writer and barrister Greg Barns SC is an adviser to the Australian Assange Campaign. He told the Canary that Albanese has two opportunities in May to bring the Assange case to an end. Firstly, when he meets UK prime minister Rishi Sunak at the coronation event. Secondly, later that month in Australia, when he again meets Sunak, as well as US president Joe Biden, for the AUKUS meeting.
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Mr Albanese needs to use the leverage Australia has as the US and UK closest ally to demand this Australian citizen [Assange] is allowed to return to his family.
No doubt Albanese is playing to his domestic audience on the matter – though as junior player in the treaty, Albanese would also be aware that Australia is not in a position to make demands on either the UK or the US.
However, in the unlikely event that the three leaders agree at the AUKUS meeting to free Assange, it would be ironic to say the least given AUKUS’ is a military alliance.
Nevertheless, Jennifer Robinson, a member of Assange’s legal team, was interviewed on an Australian breakfast TV show. She said she was “cautiously optimistic, now that we have a prime minister committed to bringing this case to an end”:
"I am cautiously optimistic" Julian's lawyer @suigenerisjen this morning on @TheTodayShow following @SenatorWong's comments that this has 'gone on too long' at @PressClubAust earlier this week.#auspol #assange pic.twitter.com/LTZ1cOcdB1
— Australian Assange Campaign (@AssangeCampaign) April 20, 2023
Assange’s father, John Shipton, is also optimistic that matters are moving in the right direction, saying:
The incoming tide is now turning into a tsunami of support. You don’t need to be a weatherman to see which way the wind’s blowing.
Appeals by law makers
The 11 April anniversary was also the day that 48 Australian Federal parliamentarians and senators across party lines signed an open letter to US attorney-general Merrick Garland. The letter requested that charges against Assange be dropped. The signatories pointed out:
Mr Assange has been effectively incarcerated for well over a decade in one form or another, yet the person who leaked classified information had their sentence commuted and has been able to participate in American society since 2017. A clear majority of Australians consider that this matter has gone on for far too long and must be brought to a close. We implore you to drop the extradition proceedings and allow Mr Assange to return home.
A similar letter was signed by 35 UK MPs and lords.
The person “who leaked classified information” was Chelsea Manning. That information consisted of documents relating to the invasion of Iraq and the Afghanistan conflict. Manning was convicted on a number of charges, though her sentence was commuted by president Obama some three and a half years later.
Australia’s foreign affairs minster Penny Wong told the National Press Club that she wants the extradition of Assange to end. However, she added that any legal interventions could be problematic:
There are obviously limits to what you can do in terms of another country’s legal proceedings and we are not a part of those proceedings….We cannot intervene in those proceedings just as the UK and US cannot intervene in our legal proceedings.
But that’s not the full story – there have been several occasions where Australia has intervened to free one of its citizens jailed in another country:
“Despite Wong’s statement, the Australian government has through diplomatic intervention won the release of six Australian citizens from foreign jails since 2007: David Hicks (U.S./Guantanamo), Melinda Taylor (Libya), James Ricketson (Cambodia), Sean Turnell (Myanmar), Kylie… https://t.co/M31p77nXrN
— Stella Assange #FreeAssangeNOW (@Stella_Assange) April 3, 2023
In an interview with Consortium News, Barns referred to the release of David Hicks – who was interned in Guantanamo Bay – after the intervention of then-Australian PM John Howard.
In response to @TheLyonsDen's "expectation" that Julian Assange will be released in about two months, @wikileaks lawyer @BarnsGreg says Australia certainly has leverage to negotiate #Assange's freedom. He adds: "It has happened before [with David Hicks] and it can happen." pic.twitter.com/SYLAT6fk2a
— Consortium News (@Consortiumnews) January 18, 2023
Flawed case in Assange prosecution
In another TV interview, Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton pointed out that the US argues that Assange tried to protect the identity of whistleblower Chelsea Manning. They also claim that he helped Manning leak information. However, Shipton added that this is exactly what all journalists do.
Julian Assange's Brother Explains the Espionage Act Charges Being Used to Hold Julian Without Due Process
— Chief Nerd (@TheChiefNerd) April 14, 2023
Australian journalist and TV presenter Mary Kostakidis pointed out other anomalies:
Here’s an interesting twist.
The ‘conspiracy to commit computer intrusion’ charge was not around obtaining access to the documents. Manning had access already.
The chat room discussion was around how to conceal her identity. Which ‘Assange’ was unable to help with in… https://t.co/O1gnHJLAtR
— 💧Mary Kostakidis (@MaryKostakidis) April 15, 2023
Indeed, in a September 2020 article, the Canary showed that Manning already had access to the files that were subsequently published by WikiLeaks. As such, Manning had no need of help to crack those files.
Moreover, the person Manning was speaking with via the chat facility was Nathaniel Frank. The US authorities assumed Frank was Assange, but have never been able to prove that.
The Canary has also outlined many other flaws in the US case against Assange.
DeClassified UK founder Matt Kennard has compared the treatment of Assange to that of US journalist Evan Gershovich, recently detained by Russia:
On left: American journalist Evan Gershovich in a glass box in court charged by Russia with espionage.
On right: Australian journalist Julian Assange in a glass box in court charged by the US with espionage.
The forces of authoritarianism want them both silenced. Free them. pic.twitter.com/VAkXuiEmBR
— Matt Kennard (@kennardmatt) April 18, 2023
Further grounds for dismissal of charges
An article by lawyer Bruce Afran in Consortium News, meanwhile, argued that the charges raised against Assange should be dismissed on a number of grounds.
For example, he argued that Assange is protected by the First Amendment:
Assange’s indictment should be quashed on the ground that the Espionage Act’s breathtaking overreach is an existential threat to First Amendment freedoms. For U.S. courts to do otherwise is to undermine due process and impose a vast threat to the First Amendment’s guarantees of a free press.
Afran further argued that the Espionage Act violates the Fifth Amendment. This amendment states that nobody should “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. But the Espionage Act is, arguably, too wide-ranging in its scope. Afran commented that the act is “almost certainly unconstitutional when applied to journalists or internet publications, such as Assange and WikiLeaks”.
Moreover, the Espionage Act, said Afran:
contains no provision that the U.S. can prosecute foreign journalists simply because they receive government documents from a U.S. source.
Afran also raised the matter of how Assange and his lawyers were spied on in the Ecuadorian embassy by a Spanish surveillance company. The Canary has covered this in detail. In this respect, Afran referenced the Daniel Ellsberg case. He explained how charges of espionage against him and fellow whistleblower Anthony Russo were dropped. That’s because the government organised illegal surveillance on the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
Assange: ‘slow-motion murder’
Crucially, Afran argued that Assange’s UK lawyers can:
move to quash the indictment in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, where his indictment was filed.
In other words, such a move can be made from the UK.
As for Albanese, his words on the Assange case will likely be seen as empty. That is, unless they result in a swift end to this “slow-motion murder”. Indeed, Albanese will need to fight hard if his desire to see Assange freed is genuine.
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