After nearly a decade of making Freedom of Information (FOI) applications in the Julian Assange case, this will probably be my final article about it.
There now seems to be galvanised support both on the ground and in political circles for Assange’s freedom to be realised, so the campaign should no longer require ‘independents’ like me mining away in the dark as I have been for many years.
Assange supporters were hopeful that when the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, took our $368 billion AUKUS spend to San Diego in March he would, in return, ask US President Joe Biden to use his executive power to bring the Assange case to an end.
However, my newest FOI request to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet produced, on 13 April 2023, another startling result. It shows no documents that refer to Assange exist in relation to the PM’s meeting with Messrs Sunak and Biden in San Diego. That means it wasn’t a formal agenda item.
Of course, it’s possible Assange’s case was raised verbally, but I’m sure we would have heard about it had that been the case, and the fact remains that Assange is still detained ‘on remand’ in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in London.
Many may recall that UK officials were worried about public reaction to their hosting a Global Conference for Media Freedom at a site a few miles from Belmarsh Prison, where Assange was incarcerated.The Declassified UK investigation in 2022 revealed that ‘Julian Assange posed a PR problem for UK government’s media campaign’.
It noted that ‘By June, officials were requesting “Lines to Take on how best to respond to questions we expect to be raised on this occasion about the UK handling of the case of Julian Assange”.’
Similarly, in February this year the Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus hosted a Media Roundtable in Canberra with media organisations and key stakeholders from across the country to discuss press freedom reform.
The Attorney-General stated about the Media Roundtable that, ‘The Albanese Government believes a strong and independent media is vital to democracy and holding governments to account. Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even jailed just for doing their jobs.
It was reported later that Assange was the “elephant in the room” at the Media Roundtable.
Like UK officials, the Attorney-General’s Department produced ‘Talking Points’ for the Media Roundtable, ‘if raised’. In short, courtesy of Freedom of Information laws:
‘I am aware that Julian Assange has filed an appeal against the UK Home Secretary’s decision to extradite him to the United States. The Australian Government has been clear in our view that Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for too long and that it should be brought to a close. We will continue to express this view to the governments of the United Kingdom and United States.
‘As the Prime Minister has said, not all foreign affairs is best conducted with a loud hailer. The United Kingdom and United States are well aware of our interest in Mr Assange’s case. The Australian Government will continue to offer consular support to Mr Assange.
‘If surrendered to the United States, convicted and sentenced, it would be open to Mr Assange to apply to transfer to Australia to serve his sentence under the international transfer of prisoners scheme. It is not possible to make a decision regarding an international prisoner transfer in advance of the person being eligible to apply for transfer. If the Australian Government received Mr Assange’s application to transfer from the United States to Australia, it would consider the application at that time in accordance with Australia’s legal framework.’
Once again, no loudhailer on the one hand, but no ruling out the possibility of Assange’s extradition to the United States on the other.
Now that consular visits at Belmarsh appear likely to resume following the April visit by the Australian High Commissioner, Stephen Smith, under the guise of trust and sensitivities it will be almost impossible to verify the truth of what is being said publicly by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which previously let distortions of the truth – including on the public record – remain uncorrected.
With US President Biden visiting Australia in May – with the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Sydney on 24 May – now is a critical time for press freedom advocates and supporters to organise.
There is no current public polling of American citizens about their support for Assange on the back of what was, by all reports, a successful tour of the United States by Assange’s father, John Shipton, and brother, Gabriel Shipton. Current polling would no doubt show that Joe Biden would receive popular support from the American people if he put this case to an end, even if based purely on the passion of the American people for their First Amendment freedoms.
In Australia it will fall to volunteers to organise. Anyone and everyone. Virtually all the relevant informational material is now publicly available, but it must be put to use: phones will need to be worked, signs will need to be made, tasks will need to be assigned, journalists will need to sharpen their pencils, and people will need to step out and show up.
Until Assange walks free everyone should assume that any statements by any of the governments involved is at best a half truth or a distortion of the truth or at worst a calculated lie.
The doors to Assange’s cell will not open by themselves. The Australian Government, its officials and advisors will not act with any sense of urgency if there’s no spectacle of public support later in May.