In Retrospect

Final bid for freedom

Detained in London’s Belmarsh Prison under the threat of extradition to the US, Julian Assange’s national security case transcends the trials of a garden-variety nightmare for politically inconvenient whistleblowers. The reality is that all of Assange’s legal options have now actually run out and the political ‘prisoner’ may be only weeks away from being extradited to the US where he could be imprisoned for 175 years

Final bid for freedom

A final appeal to prevent the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States will be heard in London over two days in February.

Assange, 52, is wanted on espionage charges and has been detained in the high-security Belmarsh Prison in southeast London since April 2019.

He was arrested after spending seven years holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faced accusations of sexual assault, which were later dropped. The US authorities want to put the Australian publisher on trial for divulging US military secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ‘Free Assange’ campaign said the case will be heard before two judges in the High Court in London on February 20 and 21. It will review an earlier decision taken by a single judge which refused Assange permission to appeal.

The appeal will determine whether Assange will have further opportunities to argue his case before the UK’s domestic courts or whether he will have exhausted all appeals and will enter the process of extradition.

“The US is attempting to convict Julian Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act,” the ‘Free Assange’ campaign founder John Rees was quoted as saying.

“If they get away with it, they will have succeeded in redefining journalism as spying.”

Assange is accused of publishing some 700,000 confidential documents related to US military and diplomatic activities, starting in 2010. He faces decades in prison if he is found guilty.

However, amidst the possibility of extradition looming for Assange, the campaign to free him has reached a new peak. Assange may be only weeks away from being extradited to the US where he will face prosecution under the Espionage Act that could see him imprisoned for 175 years.

While the US empire seems determined to destroy Assange because he exposed their war crimes, the burden of his defence falls heavily on his family members — his wife, Stella (Moris) Assange, who has to care for two young children; his father, John Shipton, an old-age pensioner; and his brother, Gabriel Shipton, a film producer. Despite the enormous disparity in the correlation of forces between Julian’s family and the world-spanning US empire, the trio travel the world, building a campaign to save their son, husband and brother.

While Stella and Gabriel were in the US, helping the Australian parliamentary delegation, John was rallying support in France and Switzerland, attending a human rights festival, sponsored by L’Humanité, and speaking at showings of the film, ‘Ithaka’, about the family’s fight to save Julian.

Before he went to Australia for his European visit, John visited Brazil. “The reception in Brazil was wonderful,” he declared. Although President Lula, a powerful advocate for Assange, was away attending the BRICS Summit in South Africa, John Shipton met with the Communication Minister and the Minister for Human Rights. The film, ‘Ithaka’, about the family’s endeavours to build a worldwide alliance, was shown in five cities, followed by a Q&A. The response was overwhelming, John was quoted as saying, with the theatres overflowing and people having to be turned away.

The previous year, John and Gabriel were invited to Mexico to receive the keys to Mexico City on behalf of Julian. Mexican President Obrador invited them to be guests of honour for Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations as a high-level display of Assange’s support in the Western hemisphere. In the Americas, Assange is regarded as a great liberator — on a par with Che Guevara, because he exposed the reality of US regime change wars.

“The majority of Latin America is committed to Julian,” John Shipton was quoted as saying, reeling off the names of leaders and countries who have called for the Assange prosecution to be dropped.

Brazil’s President Luiz Lula da Silva also underlined his country’s strong support for Assange when he addressed the United Nations in New York, saying: “It is essential to preserve the freedom of the press… A journalist like Julian Assange cannot be punished for informing society in a transparent and legitimate way. It was essential for freedom of the press that the WikiLeaks founder should not be prosecuted for informing the public.”

Since the US treats the appeals of Presidents of major countries like Mexico and Brazil as if they hardly matter, Assange’s freedom depends on whether the Biden administration will listen to Australian representatives. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said he wants the matter brought to an end and “enough is enough”. Albanese met Biden in October and is facing pressure to go beyond these platitudes and press more forcefully for the charges against Assange to be dropped.

A delegation of Australian politicians from across the political spectrum, consisting of Monique Ryan (Independent), former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce (Nationals), Tony Zappia (ALP), Senator David Shoebridge (Greens), Senator Alex Antic (Liberal) and Senator Peter Whish-Wilson (Greens) was in Washington as well to plead the case for the US to end the pursuit of Assange.

All are members of the ‘Bring Julian Assange Home Campaign’, which was founded by Peter Whish-Wilson and his fellow Tasmanian, Andrew Wilkie, in 2011. It now has 70 members and has been very active recently, sending a delegation to US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy in May, saying the mistreatment of Assange, an Australian citizen, was putting the US-Australia alliance under considerable strain, and is behind the recent Washington delegation. John Shipton has heaped praises on the parliamentary team.

In 2019, Assange was charged under the Espionage Act for his role in what the US Department of Justice has described as “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”.

The charges alleged Assange’s hand in helping former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak classified information intended to “injure” US interests or advantage of foreign nations.

The charges went further, accusing WikiLeaks and Assange of actively soliciting US classified information, and conspiracy to commit “computer intrusion” for agreeing to crack a password hash stored on Department of Defense computers.

Stella, who first met Assange as a member of his legal team, stepped into the spotlight a few years ago and effectively outed herself as the mother of his two children to the public to take on a more leading role in advocating for his freedom.

Assange suffered a mini-stroke in October 2021, later marrying Stella from his high-security prison.

“Today Julian’s feet only ever feel the hard, dull, even cement on the prison floor. When he goes to the yard for exercise, there is no grass, no sand. Just the bitumen pavement surrounded by cameras and layers of razor wire overhead,” she has been quoted as saying, contrasting Assange’s confinement over the past few years with a vivid image of life growing up in Australia’s wide open spaces.

“Julian’s cell is about three by two metres. He uses some of his books to block out the unpleasant draft coming from the window in the cold winter nights.

“He reads to keep his mind busy, to fight the crushing sense of isolation and time wasting away.

“[There is] no end in sight, and no way of knowing how many days to count to release. Julian will be in that cell indefinitely unless he is released,” she said.

“A 175-year sentence is a living death sentence. A prospect so desperate that the English court found that it would drive him to take his own life rather than live forever in hell,” she said.

“We must do everything we can to ensure that Julian never, ever, sets food in a US prison. Extradition in this case is a matter of life and death.”

The personal torment of Assange’s immediate and extended family is documented in the film ‘Ithaka’, offering a glimpse into the bizarre and distressing journey his wife and father in particular have endured over the years.

The two-part documentary makes for compelling but uncomfortable viewing, as the audience witnesses the vicarious suffering of Julian Assange through phone calls with loved ones, and the passage of time and life as court proceedings drag on.

As the world watches on with disdain how Julian Assange is being treated — with a side dish of public debate on press freedom — few revisit some of the horrible details that Manning and WikiLeaks helped to expose. Some of the cables have also been used as evidence to bring some justice to bear in international cases.

One of Assange and WikiLeaks’ first big releases was a 238-page Army manual from 2003 on “standard operating procedures” for the Camp Delta prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The manual showed the Army had a policy of keeping some prisoners from Red Cross inspectors and holding new prisoners in isolation for two weeks to make them more compliant for interrogators.

WikiLeaks also published more than half a million-page messages sent within a 24-hour period around the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The messages included exchanges from “Pentagon, FBI, FEMA and New York Police Department” officials. “We hope that its entrance into the historical record will lead to a nuanced understanding of how this event led to death, opportunism and war,” WikiLeaks had said of the release.

WikiLeaks even brought out video footage from a 2007 US Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed at least nine men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.

Army soldier Bradley Manning, a transgender woman who later became known as Chelsea Manning, was later arrested for the release of the video and other classified material about the conduct of the war and civilian deaths.

In 2010, WikiLeaks made public a trove of classified documents about US military action. It released more than 90,000 documents related to Afghanistan and later published more than 400,000 documents from the war in Iraq.

The documents included information about civilian deaths, the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Iran’s backing of militants in Iraq.

More than 250,000 unredacted US diplomatic cables dating from December 1966 to February 2010 were released in what was referred to as “Cablegate”.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the release “an attack on the international community”. The documents included verification that the US had conducted secret drone strikes in Yemen and details of US efforts to get information on United Nations representatives.

The US is seeking Assange’s extradition, explicitly to prosecute him under draconian national security legislation for his activities as a journalist.

The US pursuit of Assange has itself been thoroughly exposed as a dirty-tricks operation, involving violations of laws in multiple jurisdictions. Since the hearings began, voluminous evidence has emerged exposing illegal US spying on Assange, while he was a political refugee in Ecuador’s London embassy. That extended to unlawful surveillance of his privileged conversations with lawyers.

There is also substantial and uncontradicted evidence that the top levels of the Trump administration and the Central Intelligence Agency discussed plans to kidnap or even assassinate Assange in 2017 before a criminal indictment and extradition request were issued.

However, with Assange’s avenues for legal appeal against the US extradition diminishing, his supporters now fear for his life, let alone his freedom.

Views expressed are personal

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