Six members of the Australian parliament will land in Washington DC on September 20 armed with a bi-partisan agenda and the backing of an entire nation as they try to convince Congresspeople and US State and Justice Department officials that the American pursuit of Australian publisher Julian Assange is wrong and must be stopped.
The cross-party delegation will spend two days in the US capital arguing Assange’s case ahead of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s state visit to the White House at the end of October, where it is expected that Assange will be brought up (as well as Australia being used to test US hypersonic missiles).
The MPs traveling to Washington are former National Party leader Barnaby Joyce, Liberal Senator Alex Antic, Labor MP Tony Zappia, Independent MP Dr. Monique Ryan and Greens Senators David Shoebridge and Peter Whish-Wilson.
“We span the hard left to the hard right; besides the weather and Julian Assange we probably don’t all agree on anything,” Joyce told The Sydney Morning Herald on August 30. “Both Labor and the Coalition think this matter has gone far enough. What is to be gained by this going any further? If the Justice Department is seeking a sense of retribution, that’s already been achieved by the amount of time Assange has been in jail.”
Assange has been incarcerated in maximum security Belmarsh Prison in London since April 2019 awaiting the outcome of his extradition case to the US.
Ryan told the newspaper, “I’m not sure I agree with Barnaby Joyce on pretty much anything else, which suggests how important this is.” The US pursuit of Assange “sets a dangerous precedent for all journalists, media organizations, and for freedom of the press,” she said.
Focus on Australia
The focus of the Assange story in May switched from Britain, where his extradition case has dragged on for three years, to Australia, where the prime minister finally spoke out on behalf of his nation regarding Assange. Ironically, he was in London for the coronation when in an Australian television interview, Albanese first made public his government’s desire to see the Assange case resolved.
The US reacted five days later by allowing six Australian MPs to have lunch with Ambassador Caroline Kennedy at her Canberra residence. (Asked weeks later by Australian Broadcasting Company radio whether the meeting had changed her views of the Assange case, Kennedy said: “Not really.”)
The lunch was followed two weeks later by Stella Assange, the imprisoned publisher’s wife, making her first visit to her husband’s native country. It was timed for a scheduled trip to Australia by US President Joe Biden in late May. Biden cancelled his trip. Stella Assange nevertheless led a march through the streets of Sydney and spoke at a mass rally in the city’s Hyde Park.
The outpouring was emblematic of a nation in which as many as 88% of the population want the US to drop espionage and computer intrusion charges against their native son and allow him to return home. Assange faces a virtual life sentence of up to 175 years in prison if he is extradited from Britain and convicted in the United States.
Further remarks from Albanese in May that Assange would have to play his part led to speculation that some sort of plea deal for Assange was possible. Assange lawyer Jennifer Robinson said for the first time on behalf of Assange’s legal team that they would consider a plea deal. Robinson told the National Press Club in Canberra on May 22, “We are considering all options. The difficulty is our primary position is, of course that the case ought to be dropped. We say no crime has been committed and the facts of the case don’t disclose a crime. So what is it that Julian would be pleading to?”
However, the door then seemed slammed shut on any kind of plea deal when Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brisbane on July 31 said, ““What our Department of Justice has already said repeatedly, publicly, is this: Mr Assange was charged with very serious criminal conduct in the United States in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country. The actions that he is alleged to have committed risked very serious harm to our national security… So I say that only because just as we understand sensitivities here, it’s important that our friends understand sensitivities in the United States.”
That Blinken uttered these words showed that the case is diplomatic and political and not just legal, that is, strictly the purview of the Justice Dept.
Blinken blasted for remarks
“Antony Blinken’s allegation that Julian Assange risked very serious harm to US national security is patent nonsense,” Independent MP Andrew Wilkie told The Guardian‘s Australian edition. Assange was “not the villain … and if the US wasn’t obsessed with revenge it would drop the extradition charge as soon as possible,” Wilkie said.
Labor MP Julian Hill, also part of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, told The Guardian he had “a fundamentally different view of the substance of the matter than secretary Blinken expressed.” Albanese himself continued to call for an end to the Assange prosecution.
For some in the US, the attack on an Australian like Assange may seem abstract, but the laws that have been used to target him can easily be weaponised against other journalists in the US and abroad.
— David Shoebridge (@DavidShoebridge) September 4, 2023
Two weeks after Blinken’s rough reception, Kennedy told The Sydney Morning Herald in a front-page interview published on August 14 that the United States was now, despite Blinken’s unequivocal words, suddenly open to a plea agreement that could free Assange, allowing him to serve a shortened sentence for a lesser crime in his home country.
However, Craig Murray, a former British diplomat and close Assange associate, told WBAI radio in New York on September 1 that the United States has not, despite Kennedy’s words last month, so far offered any sort of plea deal to Assange’s legal team. Murray said, “There have been noises made by the US ambassador to Australia saying that a plea deal is possible. And that’s what the Australian government has been pushing for as a way to solve it. What I can tell you is that there have been no official approaches from the American government indicating any willingness to soften or ameliorate their position. The position of the Biden administration still seems to be that they wish to persecute and destroy Julian and lock him up for life for publishing the truth about war crimes…”
So US chatter about a plea deal was possibly designed 1) to soften the reaction to Blinken’s remarks as opposition to the US-led AUKUS alliance against China, as well as support for Assange both grow in Australia; 2) to lure Assange into giving up his extradition fight and going to the US to negotiate a deal (something his father and brother said he would never do), which would also evade a European Court of Human Rights injunction to block his extradition; or 3) to postpone a British decision on extradition until after the November 2024 US presidential election to avoid the optics of Biden in the midst of his reelection campaign trying to send a publisher to prison for life for publishing embarrassing state secrets.
It is into this political storm that the Australian parliamentarians will arrive in Washington to face obstinate and thoroughly uninformed views about Assange entrenched in the US political establishment. They will have two days to educate members of Congress, as well as State and Justice Department officials about the threat to the US Constitution and to a free US press if the persecution of their citizen continues.
(Popular Resistance) by Joe Lauria
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @unjoe .
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