Australian government urged to help Assange

Leading figures in journalism and the law have again called on the Australian government to do more to assist Julian Assange, who is facing extradition to the US on espionage charges carrying a potentially decades-long jail sentence.

They have also raised concerns any publisher could face the same charges and jail for publishing leaked information, and likened the threat to Wikileaks’ whistleblowers to recent AFP raids on Australian journalists.

While saying it is giving “active and high-level” consular assistance to the Wikileaks founder, the Australian government has been conspicuously absent in any discussion of Assange’s situation and the precedent his extradition and prosecution would set for whistleblowers here and elsewhere.

Assange is currently serving a 50-week sentence in London’s Belmarsh Prison for breaching his bail conditions by hiding out in the Ecuadorean embassy for seven years.

However, his supporters have urged the government to step in and do more to help Australian-born Assange.

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Protesters supporting Assange outside the Embassy Of Ecuador (Image: Getty)

Prominent human rights barrister Julian Burnside, who twice visited Assange in the embassy, told Hatch: “The Assange matter raises real questions about the sort of help an Australian citizen can expect to get from Australia if they get in trouble overseas.

“In 2012 I wrote to Nicola Roxon [the then federal Attorney-General] setting out Assange’s concerns about ending up in America.  She did nothing to help him.”

Burnside added that on both occasions he visited Assange, the 47-year-old was “very worried” about the prospect of ending up in the US, where he is accused of 17 violations of the Espionage Act, each carrying a potential 10-year jail sentence.

A dishevelled-looking Assange told a court hearing last week: “One hundred and seventy-five years of my life is effectively at stake.”

"I think the Australian government should give him stronger support than he’s getting. It’s pretty muted, if at all, at the moment."

The US charges, laid just last month, relate to Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and files on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Assange was previously charged with conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer system.

Last week, Britain’s Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, signed extradition papers following a request from the US Department of Justice. However, Assange’s extradition needs to be confirmed by a British court, which will not hear the case until February next year. His lawyers plan to fight the extradition.

Today (June 21), Swedish prosecutors, who have also been seeking Assange’s extradition in relation to rape allegations, said they would not appeal against a Swedish court’s rejection of a formal request to detain him. He cannot be extradited to Sweden without a detention order and a European Arrest Warrant. However, prosecutors plan to continue to investigate the rape allegations.

Burnside’s call was echoed by John Lyons, Head of Investigations at the ABC, who told a Walkley Foundation panel discussion, on whistleblowers and the AFP raids, last night: “I think the Australian government should give him stronger support than he’s getting. It’s pretty muted, if at all, at the moment.”

Lyons, who live-tweeted the Australian Federal Police raids on the ABC earlier this month, added: “I do sort of despair a bit at … people on social media and Twitter, and even journalists, debating whether he is a journalist or not.

“I don’t think at the moment that really matters … I don’t think we should turn our back on him at the moment. He is an Australian citizen in a lot of trouble.

“He is also someone who, if you look at what they’re trying to charge him on, it’s essentially what we’re talking about (whistleblowing). He helped expose some war atrocities.

“I don’t agree with all of the WikiLeaks style of journalism …  but I think at the moment it’s about the American government and others trying to essentially nail him because he revealed information which didn’t jeopardise their security or lives, but in fact embarrassed them for what they were doing.”

John Lyons speaking at a Walkey Foundation seminar on Thursday. (Image: Fiona West)

Burnside noted that the material relating to the espionage charges constituted facts.

“The facts he [Assange] reported on Wikileaks would not have been noticed by many people at all, but the world learned of them because the mainstream media published them.  Why is Assange in trouble, rather than Murdoch?”

Assange’s latest legal woes came after he was sensationally dragged out of the Ecuadorean embassy in April. He told last week’s court hearing: “WikiLeaks is nothing but a publisher.”

He reportedly spent two weeks in Belmarsh’s hospital wing, but was recently discharged back into the mainstream of the maximum-security jail.

Featured image of Julian Assange in London in 2011 by Hadyn on Flickr. Click HERE to see the original.

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