AAP Image/James Ross


Originally published in The Canberra Times on April 13, 2024

As President Joe Biden walked along the West Colonnade of the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kushida this week, a reporter shouted a question: Did he have a response to Australia’s request that he end Julian Assange’s prosecution?

Taking a moment to respond, sporting his signature aviators, Biden replied: “We’re considering it.”

On the fifth anniversary of Assange’s imprisonment, those innocuous three words are a big development. The “request” from Australia came a long time ago: the reporter might have been referring to a resolution passed by the Australian Parliament earlier this year, the bipartisan delegation that visited Washington in September last year, or the Prime Minister’s repeated insistence that “enough is enough” and Assange should be allowed to come home.

Even if he meant to deflect, Biden has now indicated that his administration will be making a decision on Assange’s case.

Responding to Biden’s comment, Julian Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, said, “Biden’s statement has acknowledged that this is political. If this statement is treated as meaningful by the Australian Government and the Prime Minister, it can be turned into something meaningful for Julian”.

This case is and has always been entirely political and could be easily and quickly resolved.

There have been suggestions that a decision might be coming for several weeks now. In late March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice was exploring options for a plea deal.

This came after the High Court in London ruled that Assange has the right to appeal his extradition to the United States if – and only if – the United States cannot provide “satisfactory assurances” that he will receive First Amendment protections and that prosecutors will not seek the death penalty. It remains to be seen what the threshold for “satisfactory assurances” is, and if the United States is willing or able to provide them. Biden’s comments suggest they may not be.

Assange, an Australian citizen and journalist, is being pursued for charges under the US Espionage Act. That Australia’s greatest ally would continue to pursue an Australian citizen in this way, that it would only now suggest it might “consider” dropping the charges, despite direct appeals to the President and Congress, should not be surprising. As the Australia Institute’s Dr Emma Shortis argued in a recent speech at a conference in support of Assange, the cruelty of Assange’s treatment is entirely the point. Understanding this is critical to understanding both Assange’s plight and the broader structures of Australia’s alliance with the United States.

Despite the case dragging on for years, the situation is urgent. After five years in Belmarsh prison in London—notorious as the Guantanamo Bay of Britain — it is not surprising that Assange’s health has deteriorated, with him too ill to attend his last court hearing in February; he had a stroke during the one before.

In their latest ruling, judges in the UK noted on 26 March both the enormous amount of material presented to them (in excess of 8000 pages), and also the “exceptional level of national and international interest” in proceedings.

The judges provisionally agreed to several grounds for Assange to Appeal to the High Court, but gave the United States an opportunity to provide assurances this coming Monday, 16 April, on whether Assange would face the death penalty, and whether he would be prejudiced at trial for being Australian. The US has said in previous hearings that Assange would not get free speech protections under the First Amendment because he is Australian and not a US citizen. If the United States fails to provide these assurances, an appeal will be heard on 20 May.

The reality is the prosecution of Julian Assange has always been political. More than anything, Assange is being prosecuted for embarrassing the United States government. Let’s not forget the significant disclosures made by Wikileaks. It published ‘Collateral Murder,’ a video depicting civilians being fatally shot by a US military helicopter in Baghdad, Iraq. Wikileaks also published numerous confidential documents, provided by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, indicating unreported incidents of civilian casualties allegedly caused by the US military during the Afghanistan war.

This is bread and butter public interest journalism, not a crime. In fact, the Department of Justice under Obama declined to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act precisely because if Assange could be prosecuted, so could The New York Times. Assange’s prosecution is a clear threat to press freedom, critical to the health of any democracy.

While the complex legal saga grinds on, public support for Julian Assange has only grown.

All major human rights organisations and journalists’ unions have campaigned for his release, and the mastheads that published WikiLeaks revelations, The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, and Der Spiegel, have signed open letters opposing his extradition.

The high-level support for Assange has come about due to persistent activism from the public, a tribute to Assange’s determination to hold the powerful to account. Last week saw the 228th vigil for Assange on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall, and over 110,500 have signed a letter to US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.  Parliamentary groups exist in a dozen countries, including eight in Europe.  Even the Pope has expressed his opposition to extradition, as have seven heads of state in the Americas. Here in Australia, the House of Representatives adopted a motion on Valentine’s Day calling on the UK and USA to bring the matter to a close and allow Assange and his family to return to Australia.

As Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson has often stated, “This case needs an urgent political fix.” It is now incumbent on the Australian government to use this opportunity. By treating Biden’s statement as meaningful, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese could turn those three words into a real and long overdue result for Julian Assange.

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