Dylan Welch, November 8, 2011
The foreign affairs department may have also been caught out in an embarrassing lie, after telling The Age they had replied to a letter from Assange’s British lawyer, Gareth Peirce, when they had not.
Tony Kevin, an Australian diplomat of three decades who served as ambassador to Poland and Cambodia, was critical of Mr Rudd’s handling of the Assange case, saying Australia appeared unprepared to grapple with its highly political nature.
”They have just treated it like a standard consular issue, which is really quite inappropriate given the heavy politics surrounding it,” he said.
The five-page letter from Ms Peirce – one of Britain’s most high-profile human rights solicitors, who helped free the Guildford Four in the 1990s – sought assurances from Mr Rudd that he would lobby the US not to extradite Assange there. ”Without the help of his government, Mr Assange may well be in grave danger,” the letter states.
A US grand jury in Virginia has been examining evidence and subpoenaing witnesses this year, with the possible aim of charging Assange under the century-old Espionage Act, which can carry the death penalty.
The letter from Ms Peirce was delivered to Mr Rudd by Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull on September 22.
Despite assurances from Mr Rudd that he would ensure it was dealt with, it appears the matter was forwarded to the foreign affairs department and promptly forgotten.
It was only when The Age approached the foreign affairs department on October 25 that they revisited the matter.
A foreign affairs spokeswoman said a response to the letter was ”dispatched” from the department’s senior legal adviser to Ms Peirce but she neglected to mention that the response was only undertaken after The Age contacted them.
That was revealed yesterday, when Mr Rudd’s office admitted that the letter was sent that day, presumably after The Age’s question. Despite that, by yesterday Ms Peirce still had not received the response.
”I am afraid I have not received the letter you describe from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs,” Ms Peirce said in an email. ”If it is on its way, then it has not yet arrived.”
Late yesterday a spokeswoman for Mr Rudd said the letter had been emailed to Ms Peirce.
Mr Assange’s mother, Christine, said she was furious at the way the Australian government has been treating her son.
”His freedom is being trampled on continually over this court case and Australia is totally complicit in it,” she said.
Ms Peirce declined to comment on her view of the the Australian government’s treatment of the case but his former London solicitor, Jennifer Robinson, said she had been surprised by the lack of consular support.
”We were asked for briefings on case progress but I always had the sense this was so the government could prepare their political response rather than to assist Julian,” she said.