As Julian Assange awaits the UK Supreme Court’s decision on his extradition to Sweden, to answer questions about dubious sexual assault charges, Australians should be questioning our own government’s lamentable conduct in this affair. European Arrest Warrants and Swedish law are fraught with numerous legal difficulties – outlined by Jennifer Robinson, one of Assange’s lawyers, to an Australian parliamentary group a year ago, to prompt some action in defence of his rights as an Australian citizen. Nothing happened, and our government has studiously avoided taking any action. Worse, our PM and Attorney-General accused him of breaking the law and threatened to cancel his Australian passport. No charges of any kind have been laid against Assange over Wikileaks. Clearly these politicians had over-stepped the mark, and have since kept their mouths shut.
Our treatment of another Australian journalist, during the Vietnam War, comes to mind. Wilfred Burchett reported from North Vietnam, the only Westerner to do so, and was branded a traitor. Vilified as a ‘KGB agent, torturer, brainwasher and Stalinist hack’ by our government, he was refused a passport renewal for 17 years after 1955, and even denied entry to attend his father’s funeral. The Whitlam government issued him a passport in 1972. The 100th anniversary of Burchett’s birth was commemorated with an exhibition of his photographs at Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh Museum last year, to honour his memory as a friend of Vietnam. In Australia it was ignored. Burchett had argued that the US could not win the war and was credited with, or blamed for, fuelling public opinion in the West against it. Like Assange, he paid a high price for truth-telling.
The depth of antagonism in US government and ‘right-wing’ circles towards Assange is exemplified by senior officials calling for him to be killed by the CIA or other means. Local Swedish politics and close US-Swedish relations (Sweden was used for ‘extraordinary rendition’ of Guantanamo-bound detainees from Afghanistan), will certainly prejudice any chance of fair treatment if Assange is deported there. Amazingly, he can be held incommunicado in solitary confinement without bail for several months, and given a secret trial (on sex offences!). The US government will no doubt also seek his extradition from Sweden. Once in the US, Julian will be abused, like Bradley Manning the US marine charged with leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, and who has been ‘interrogated’ over many months of solitary confinement. The US government even successfully put pressure on Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, and Bank of America to stop processing support payments to Wikleaks – this ban is still in effect, although the transactions are legal. The US government is very angry, and will stop at nothing to take revenge on someone challenging their power and misdealings.
Against this background, the supine and gutless attitude of our government is deplorable and brings shame on us all. After David Hicks’ abandonment by the Howard government to rot in Guantanamo for six years, we have hit a new low of duplicitous US-arse-licking. Julian’s rights as an Australian citizen should be paramount and staunchly defended by our highest public officials. Their complicit silence is disgraceful. Despite what anyone thinks about any damage done by leaked documents in the world of diplomacy, remember, no charges have been laid against Assange. The Australian government should already be taking legal steps to protect him from dubious treatment in Sweden and beyond. For the record, Wilfred died from cancer in Bulgaria in 1982 aged 72, in exile.