news The Australian Government’s hands are currently tied when it comes to the fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said last night, with the maverick Internet publisher’s Australian citizenship mattering little in the scheme of Swedish legal process unless a formal extradition request was made to shift him out of the European Union.
Assange is currently being held in the UK under a mild form of house arrest relating to alleged sexual offences in Sweden, where he is likely to be extradited under common European law. However, there are concerns Assange, who achieved global notoriety through his founding of the libertarian Wikileaks organisation, could be extradited from Sweden to the US to face prosecution over his organisations’ publication of classified material such as US diplomatic cables.
Assange is being represented by Australian-born human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who took live questions on the matter flanked by Roxon and a number of other commentators on the ABC’s Q&A television program last night (click here to watch the full program — it made for fascinating viewing).
The Wikileaks activist, Robertson said, wanted to “come back to Australia”, to contest a Senate seat in the next Federal Election likely to be held in 2013. However, Robertson said, the problem was that Assange would be liable to be extradited from Sweden to the US, which has reportedly set up a grand jury to try Assange under charges secretly drawn up more than a year ago.
“Sweden has a terrible reputation of rendering people straight to the CIA and that is his concern,” Robertson told the audience. “There has been a grand jury sitting in Virginia for 18 months. A grand jury is a medieval American procedure … they say that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. Well, they may well indict Julian, because, after all, Sarah Palin said “We have to hunt him down like Bin Laden”.”
Robertson said that if Assange was taken to Sweden, the Australian Government could intervene at that point from having the activist extradited to the US, echoing comments by the Greens, which has demanded that the Government intervene in Assange’s case. Greens Communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam (who has visited Assange in the UK) stated in the Senate in March this year that a series of Freedom of Information requests he had filed with the Government regarding Assange’s fate had been stonewalled and blocked. The Greens view Assange as a journalist, and have requested that the Government support Assange as such and protect his rights.
However, last night on Q&A, Roxon said that the Australian Government was already doing all it could with respect to the Wikileaks founder. She said the Australian Federal Police had investigated Assange, and determined he had not broken any Australian law.
“What that means is that he is treated in exactly the same way as every other Australian,” Roxon said. “If he commits an offence in another country, that country’s laws obviously will apply … I don’t think anyone can suggest the UK doesn’t have a strong legal system. What we do then is provide consular support. As soon as the courts make their decision, he is free to come back to Australia. He hasn’t had his passport cancelled or any of those sorts of things.”
According to Roxon, if an extradition request was filed to shift Assange to the US, Australia would be notified and have the opportunity to challenge the issue. However, the Attorney-General said she would not pre-make a decision on what the Government would do in that case, as the issue would include a variety of factors such as what the request was about, what penalties might apply and so on.
“But no request has been made to us,” Roxon said.
Roxon did say that the Australian Government had made representations in Assange’s case that the proper legal process had been followed, including to representatives of the US Government. And she denied that recent changes to the way Australia handles extradition requests would have any impact on Assange. “I just think people have to understand we have to step through each of the legal processes,” said Roxon. “So far, all we have is assertions.”
Despite Roxon’s statements, a vote taken during the program showed that 78 percent of several thousand respondents did not believe the Australian Government had done enough to support Assange. In addition, a series of protests in Australian capital cities in late 2010 saw thousands of Australians organise to demand the Federal Government do more to support Assange.
I do believe that the Australian Government has done for Assange what it would normally do for most normal Australians caught in the sort of legal situation in which he finds himself in Europe: Provide consular assistance (which Assange probably does not need) and make mild representations to the relevant governments about due legal process.
However, the issue here is that popular perception is that the Government has not done enough, as Assange is far from being a normal citizen, and the legal process in which he is ensnared is far from clear and transparent. The fact that his ongoing house arrest in the UK has now stretched far beyond a year should make that clear, as should the Stratfor email leaks which purported to show a secret tribunal being set up in the US to try Assange in that country.
Clearly, Roxon and other senior figures in the Australian Government need to come a few steps closer to popular opinion on this one and do more in public to support Assange, instead of acting as if it’s an unemotional legal issue which people aren’t passionate about. The truth is that many Australians are passionate about this home-grown ratbag Internet activist, and so our Government should get a bit more red-faced about his plight too.
In the process, the US Government will likely get a bit annoyed at the Australian Government. But that’s by the by. As Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently said about the Australian Government’s relationship with China, following the decision to block Chinese networking equipment vendor Huawei from participating in the National Broadband Network construction process:
“We are deeply engaged at every level, we have a strong economic relationship, increasing ties at every level, diplomatic ties, multilateral ties, people to people links, and you will continue to see our relationship with China strengthen and grow. Now does that mean there will never be a moment where we see things differently? Of course not. There will be moments where we see things differently. And I’m not surprised that this is a moment where we are seeing one thing differently.”
“But it would be a great error indeed to move from a moment where we are seeing one thing differently, and then extrapolate that to the full dimensions of the relationship, a very grave error indeed.”
These words, it would seem, can obviously also be applied to Australia’s relationship with the US.
One last thing: If Assange is able to come home, and one suspects he will be eventually, one does also have to wonder how long his memory will be, if he is successful, as some believe he will be, in his bid for a seat in the Australian Senate. At that stage, the currently unpopular Labor administration may just be in need of a few extra numbers in the Senate to help ends meet and keep what is looking like a Coalition Government in check. At that stage, a Labor-led intervention to rescue Assange from US extradition might start to look like a pretty decent investment indeed.