Tony Kevin December 14, 2011
The 2011 Walkley Awards included a surprising ‘Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism’, to Julian Assange’s website WikiLeaks.
According to the citation, ‘by designing and constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world.
In June, Assange also won in Britain the Martha Gellhorn Prize for ‘journalism at the cutting edge … that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs … and raises ‘forgotten’ issues of public importance, without fear or favour, working against the grain of government spin’.
These two awards commending WikiLeaks as publicly empowering journalism may yet prove to be vital to Assange.
If he is soon extradited from UK to Sweden, as now seems likely, he faces the danger of early ‘temporary surrender’ from there to the US, under a Swedish-US arrangement for transferring people charged with crimes in both countries. This enables the two governments to avoid procedural requirements and opportunities for appeal that exist under normal extradition arrangements.
Assange could then face very serious charges in the US. Cables recently obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald under Freedom of Information from the Australian Embassy in Washington confirm that since 2010 the US Justice Department has conducted an ‘active and vigorous inquiry into whether Assange can be charged under US law, most likely the 1917 Espionage Act’.
This investigation is ‘unprecedented both in its scale and nature’. Media reports that a secret grand jury has been convened in Virginia are ‘likely true’. The embassy reports that ‘a central theme has been the question of whether WikiLeaks is a media organisation … the history of these cases has never seen a media outlet convicted for publication of leaked documents’.
The embassy notes that the US Justice Department was investigating alleged technical assistance provided by WikiLeaks to Private Bradley Manning who is under arrest and facing treason charges, and that ‘evidence of such a conspiracy could assist prosecutors rebut claims that WikiLeaks was acting merely as a media organisation’ in accepting for publication secret cables from Manning.
Assange thus faces risks of a long prison sentence if sent to the US. For who knows what Manning’s testimony might say, after his months of cruel and unusual confinement? At worst, Assange could face real risk of assassination in the US, where there have been many death threats against him.
Assange has waged a year-long legal struggle against extradition from Britain to Sweden, to face questioning by a Swedish prosecutor on alleged rape charges. His lawyer says the allegations stem from a ‘dispute over consensual but unprotected sex’. The reported circumstances are quite strange.
The ominous international political background has seemingly not been taken into account by British judges hearing the matter.
Assange now confronts the last possible legal opportunity to challenge his extradition to Sweden. He awaits a UK Supreme Court ruling, reported by some media as expected before Christmas Day, on a point of law considered by the final lower court to be ‘of general public importance’: whether a (Swedish) public prosecutor is a ‘judicial authority’ as required by the 2003 Extradition Act.
The issue revolves around the notion that there must be a separation between the executive and the judiciary when depriving a person of their liberty; in this case when the person concerned has not been charged and the device used to deprive their liberty is extradition to another state.
If I were Assange, I would not feel safe going to Sweden now. Though Assange has not been charged in Sweden, the Swedish public prosecutor has declined many offers over the past year that she question him in the UK. This raises questions of good faith.
Also, it is not clear how Sweden might respond to any US request for his temporary surrender to the US, if American charges were laid against him on arrival in Sweden. The present conservative Swedish Government has a history of acceding to all US rendition requests during the War on Terror.
Also, Karl Rove is an adviser to the Swedish Prime Minister. Rove had a notorious public history as a ruthless senior White House official. For example he was allegedly implicated in the Bush White House’s career destruction of ‘outed’ CIA agent Valerie Plame and her diplomat husband Joe Wilson.
What has the Australian Government done to protect Assange these past months? Almost nothing. Kevin Rudd — who earlier took some interest in Assange’s rights to consular protection as an Australian at risk overseas — now resorts to delaying tactics and formalistic responses.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam tried to question the Prime Minister about Assange before Parliament rose for the summer break, but was blocked by an opposition censure motion.
Assange’s mother appeals to Australians of good will to help defend her son from his clear and present danger: ‘Get informed. Inform a friend. Call talkback radio. Go and see your local Federal Member … and tell them you expect them to stick up for an Australian citizen …’
I do not claim impartiality here. I think this is an important cause, and commend it to Eureka Street readers. Bad things happen when good people do nothing.