Assange is no hero but he deserves a fair trial
If you break the law overseas, don’t expect government to bail you out. Julian Assange hasn’t been charged under any laws for Wikileaks and that’s what makes Julia Gillard’s abandonment of an Australian citizen so disappointing.
The Wikileaks founder is a divisive figure, evoking reactions of admiration, loathing, love and horror for releasing a mountain of classified US cables. But whatever picture painted of Assange you subscribe to, he deserves to be treated fairly. No matter how much you hate the release of cables, it doesn’t make it illegal.
Like most major media outlets, Wikileaks operated an anonymous drop-box for information and US marine Bradley Manning is alleged to have filled it in spectacular fashion. Through a possible plea bargain, the US appear intent on establishing that far from voluntarily offering up the cables, Manning was coerced to do so by Assange. That case seems even more implausible following last year’s revelations that Manning googled Assange and Wikileaks over a hundred times on his work computer before he allegedly handed over the material to Wikileaks.
Sure, every nation must have its secrets, but secrecy shouldn’t be overused. One place not to put state secrets is in cables which can be accessed by around a quarter of a million public servants. It is simply too easy for a 19 year old to download them onto Lady Gaga CDs and carry them home.
Further along the information supply chain, it is difficult to assign any more blame to Assange than the Guardian or New York Times which disseminated the content with delight. It now appears Assange offered the opportunity to redact highly sensitive material out of the cables, but the US refused. If that offer to filter out sensitive material was passed up, it suggests there wasn’t much in the cables to sweat about.
US officials now concede that no assets were moved or redeployed in Afghanistan as a result of Wikileaks. Passing up the offer to redact and the reality that it has been business as usual since, makes it hard to maintain the argument that Wikileaks was a massive haemorrhage of state secrets which risked compromising the free western world.
That’s probably because diplomatic cables are little more than the everyday truthful and uncluttered observations of foreign service hopefuls. This mostly banal and anodyne content is occasionally spiked with acutely embarrassing content about powerful people. So it’s little wonder few of them will now stand up for Assange. It is also in vogue for politicians to be pro-national security.
That means judging first and not being bothered to ask questions on the way through. Julia Gillard is the exemplar. Having assumed Assange had broken ‘some’ Australian law, she even canvassed cancelling his Australian passport, effectively making Assange Australia’s first political refugee.
With such initial hostility, the Prime Minister can’t even do her job on behalf of this citizen without looking like a back-flipping hypocrite. Little wonder she has been mute ever since, a far cry from her approach to David Hicks.
Sweden’s legal system is curious in places and unfamiliar to most of us. They are entitled to seek Assange’s extradition and the minute he lands, either place him into incommunicado detention or temporarily surrender him to the US by ‘mutual agreement.’ That’s a mutual agreement which doesn’t involve Australia, and which Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister only managed to achieve an assurance that “due process” will be afforded Assange.
Sadly, Swedish prosecutors pursuit of Assange to date has raised questions as to what exactly due process in Sweden means.
Meanwhile, suspicions that a US grand jury had been meeting in secret to indict Assange in the notoriously pro-national security state of Virginia have been confirmed today – ironically in another Wikileaks release.
Even after over a year, there is no indication if charges can or will be laid. But given high-profile US politicians have called him a terrorist, an enemy combatant and sought his extrajudicial killing, one wonders if a fair trial is possible or any protections exist under the First Amendment.
The attacks on Wikileaks include subpoenas on Twitter accounts and a complete financial embargo, including shutting down all forms of financial services and payments. That has effectively starved Assange of the funds required to run his defence.
We are reaching a point where things are done to Assange for no other reason than they can be dreamt up by those who are mildly annoyed.
The evolving plan to bump Assange along legal systems to get him in front of a US grand jury is disappointing. If the US believes an Australian citizen has a case to answer, at least be upfront about it. If Assange has done anything more than offend the powerful few, it is time for that case to be fully elaborated and heard by a truly independent judiciary.
Andrew Laming is the Liberal MP for Bowman.
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