Humanity’s historical record may be long but there is no doubt that Julian Assange and his small team have already changed the world. Throughout history courageous people who have taken risks to challenge power and the injustices of its abuse have suffered terrible personal consequences, for there is nothing more terrifying for the power elite than an educated, questioning and unified populace.
Tonight Australian time Julian Assange will ask the English High Court for leave to appeal two points of law to the Supreme Court. The judges who dismissed his appeal to the High Court will decide whether or not to certify these points, which must be of public importance and go beyond the specific facts of his case. If he fails he will be extradited to Sweden within 10 days and incarcerated.
Tonight a mother faces the prospect of her son being extradited to a country that has authorised Interpol to make a public Red Notice for her son – its highest alert – in the first and only case of its kind, a country that has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for rendering people to the CIA in breach of international law, and that doesn’t have bail; of her son being held in Gothenburg Prison (which has been criticised by the European Commission against Torture for the way it treats its foreign prisoners), being tried in secret, without a jury, before a judge and two retired politicians from parties that have already criticised him, and ultimately being extradited to the United States at the behest of a government which has shown a thirst for revenge and has a long history of disregarding the rule of law and engaging, by its own hand or by proxy, in human rights abuses.
I took the opportunity to catch up with Christine Assange last week. In a lengthy interview I heard about Assange the man, the father, the brother and the son, told by his mother – a fierce supporter but also perhaps also his most honest critic – and not by a Palantir powerpoint presentation.
Seven days a week, she finds herself reviewing any legislative or other changes that occur in the United Kingdom, the United States or Australia designed to affect her son or his work. Australia’s Wikileaks Amendment is a case in point. She responds to letters of support, prepares for and gives interviews to raise public awareness, writes notes and annotates articles. Time doesn’t always permit sleep or the luxury of regular meals. Even if she’s exhausted she limits her time off because it takes her longer to catch up. She does, however, take the time to listen every day to Pete Murray’s song Free. Julian, she tells me, is into independent music from indigenous cultures from all around the world (although he had a soft spot for Kenny Rogers when he was a very young boy).
Her resources are limited. She’s had the usual Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade line, “We’re here if you need us”, but support from the Gillard Government to date has been negligible. Recent events have underlined the Gillard Government’s deference to the United States Government pursuit of Assange, like Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd’s tardy response to a letter from Gareth Pierce, one of Britain’s high-profile human rights solicitors, the refusal to provide full and frank responses to all of Senator Ludlam’s Questions on Notice, and ignoring calls that her sons life is in “clear and present danger”.
In February this year former Reagan administration official Paul Craig Roberts said:
“…there is a concerted effort to nail him–to shut Assange up… If the legal attempt fails, he’ll simply be assassinated by a CIA assassination team. It’s common practice for the CIA to do that.”
With calls by prominent United States political figures for her son to face the death penalty, it’s little wonder that Christine Assange describes herself as being in “battle mode, where there’s no room for emotion.” She says she finds it “too difficult to engage her emotions.” She has “good days and bad days … I have a strong team and I know that my son is on the side of right so I have the moral strength to keep going.” She speaks to her son regularly by phone, but they limit their conversations to generalities rather than the specific questions all mothers wants to ask their sons. Questions about his welfare or state of mind are off limits in case the conversations are being monitored.
She says that in the beginning her son had high hopes. “He believed that once people had the facts that would be enough. He had trust in the British legal system. He believed that the Australian Government would stand up for him. Sadly, the reality is quite different, and as a result he’s currently caught between Sweden’s domestic political agenda and the United States’ agenda. …. He’s dismayed at how far the corrupt will go to intimidate, or to collude with each other, or to go against the values of their own democracy.” Even so, she says that “Although it’s difficult, he is in good spirits that justice will be done.”
Christine details how many in the media have continued to smear her son. She describes the Swedish documentary Julian Assange, World’s Love Affair, which aired on Sweden National Television as the last in a documentary series about brutal dictators. She points out that “What is often forgotten is that he and his team provided the cables to the media for free. The media have benefited and made money as a result.”
I asked her if she agrees with the description of her son being paranoid. Her response: “What is paranoia? It is an unfounded fear.” His treatment so far, including the calls for his execution by people in positions of power, demonstrates that his fears are far from unfounded.
Responding to her son being criticised by some in the media as an “activist journalist”, Christine is quick to point out that “everything you write and every thought you have is loaded with value judgement. Life is political. But I disagree that my son is an activist journalist because he doesn’t blindly follow the left or the right. Wikileaks is a legitimate online publisher and my son is a legitimate editor-in-chief. My son and his team publish the material and people can draw their own conclusions from that. His work is based solely on publishing facts, not opinion. He and Wikileaks have stuck their necks out to report the truth, which is what journalism should be about. Wikileaks and my son have put their lives on the line. Instead of other journalists criticising them perhaps they should say, ‘I wish I was that brave but I’m not’. We use the term “activist” in a derogatory way but if that means bringing the truth to the people then good, there should be more of it.”
Assange has also been accused of narcissism. Christine’s response: “They can’t shoot the message so they discredit the messenger. They attack Julian personally and his personal funds have been frozen. There has never been an allegation that the cables published by Wikileaks are manufactured or untruthful. The content of the cables has not been denied by any country. Why isn’t anyone in the media pushing to discredit the cables? No-one is perfect, Julian is human. He has been under enormous pressure. He is a CEO of an organisation where, if mistakes are made, there are considerable consequences for his sources. So the buck stops with him. He takes this obligation very seriously. How many journalists running to a deadline have not been snappy from time to time? Such comments about my son are petty in the extreme.”
Accusations of narcissism don’t seem to fit in with Assange’s motives for starting Wikileaks. According to Christine, “Julian is actually a private person, believe it or not. The reason Wikileaks was started was to give whistleblowers in third world countries a way to speak out against dictators without fear of being gaoled or killed. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever expect to receive the US material.”
From taxi-drivers to Vietnam veterans, no matter where Christine goes she receives messages of support for her son and Wikileaks. She has “not received one phone call telling me that my son has done the wrong thing”. But she is yet to receive a phone call from Prime Minister Gillard. For her, she has this message:
“Be the leader everyone hoped you’d be. You could be a true leader if you stood up for freedom. Other countries which stood up to the United States are still trading with them. Nothing happened. David Lange stood up to bar nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from using New Zealand ports or entering New Zealand waters and Canada’s Pierre Trudeau opposed the Vietnam War and welcomed American draft dodgers. Who’s dictating our foreign policy, the United States or you? And if you’re a feminist then let’s see it: let’s see you be strong and tough by standing up for human and legal rights. If the ALP has lost its way then the new direction may be one of making Australian an independent democracy. You talk about our shared values with the United States, but which shared values are you talking about? Applying pressure in Haiti against moves to increase the minimum wage to $5 dollar a day? The handing over of citizen political dissidents in Iraq to the Iraqi secret police for torture? The persecution of whistleblowers? How do you want to be remembered? As the brave woman who stood up to a global bully, or the leader who cowardly coat-tailed or kowtowed to the global bully to pursue your own personal political ambitions?”
For the rest of us, she asks mainly that we speak up:
“Get informed. Inform a friend. Call talkback radio. Go and see your local Federal Member, regardless of their political party, and tell them you expect them to stick up for an Australian citizen, demand that they apply pressure to ensure that Julian is not extradited to the United States, and that they follow the diplomatic and legal advice provided in March this year to seek written humanitarian guarantees from Britain and Sweden, or you will change your vote at the next election.”
Even if tonight’s decision falls in her son’s favour, she won’t be rejoicing: it’s just one battle of many she knows she will face. If he’s unsuccessful she will stay focused on the next steps in what promises to be a long quest for justice for her son.
It’s easy to see why, for some, Assange has become the ultimate prize. The information Wikileaks has published has given us a taste of how the power elite live and behave on their Laputa, their floating island hovering above the proles (that’s us, the public). “Top secret” documents, which sit higher up the document classification ladder than the “confidential” and “secret” documents so far released by Wikileaks, must surely reveal the pure contempt in which the power players hold the rights of all citizens of all nations all around the world. In their quest to use Assange as an example to others who might stray from the “work hard and do as you’re told” mantra, one wonders whether the powers that be might not take a step too far, perhaps underestimating the effect Assange and his small team have had on the proles attached with strings to their island.
I know no-one who wasn’t outraged when they saw the US helicopter gunship murdering unarmed civilians in Iraq, and we have Assange to thank for telling the world that appalling truth. We mustn’t forget that, just as we mustn’t forget the importance for our own rights, and for the integrity of our country and ourselves as a people, of everything else Assange and Wikileaks have been trying to do. Just as our politicians and our Prime Minister mustn’t forget their duty to an Australian in peril.
We live not in a world where “knowledge is power” so much as one where power abusers survive on deception and popular ignorance. That’s exactly what Wikileaks’ publishing aims to address: by getting things out in the open, and reporting honestly and accurately, people who are entrusted with power at least may be held accountable for what they do with it. A person like Julian Assange, who has the courage to act in the interests of each of us “little people”, deserves our support – both individually and as a country – as the powerful try to close ranks around him. We must strive to see that he is treated justly and fairly, just as he has striven for that outcome for others.