Friday’s announcement by British Home Secretary Priti Patel that she has approved Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States has sparked outpouring of anger and opposition, including in Australia.
The decision will be subject to a final appeal within the UK legal system by Assange’s lawyers. But Patel’s announcement underscores the increasingly imminent danger that Assange will be handed over to the United States where he faces 18 charges that fall under theEspionage Actcarrying sentences of up to 175 years in prison, for bringing to light war crimes committed by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and other violence committed by its allies.
Since the announcement, Assange has repeatedly appeared among the top “trending” topics on Twitter in Australia: several thousand posts oppose his persecution. Social media posts by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and other senior Labor politicians unrelated to the Assange case have been inundated with comments demanding that the government act immediately to release Assange, a Australian citizen.
Labor responded with undisguised hostility. In response to a reporter’s question about the demands on Monday, Albanese said, “There are people who think that if you capitalize things on Twitter and put an exclamation mark, it makes them somehow more important. This is not the case”. Labour, he said, “runs a government that works diplomatically and appropriately with our partners”, meaning Britain and the United States.
The two times Albanese answered questions about Assange, he said as little as possible. The aim is to urge the government to do nothing at all, while leaving the field open to its apologists to claim that the Labor Party may be making behind-the-scenes representations to the British and American governments.
But Labour’s true position has been made clear by Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Secretary Richard Marles and Foreign Secretary Penny Wong, both of whom have the closest ties to the US state and play a role central to Australia’s increased integration into the US-China confrontation.
In a joint statement with Attorney General Mark Dreyfus shortly after Patel’s announcement, Wong said Australia “was not a party to Mr Assange’s case and the Australian government could not intervene in the legal affairs of another country”.
This statement presents the attempted extradition of Assange as a bona fide “legal matter”, when in fact it is nothing more than an extraordinary rendition. Assange is being prosecuted for having published, as a journalist, information that is true and in the public interest. This is clearly a frontal attack on freedom of the press and the most fundamental democratic rights.
Furthermore, the US prosecution of Assange has resulted in countless attacks on his legal and democratic rights. In addition to a massive espionage operation carried out against the founder of WikiLeaks by the United States, when he was a political refugee in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Yahoo! News reported last September that the Trump administration had discussed his kidnapping and assassination in 2017.
As for the treatment reserved for Assange by Great Britain, it has been described as state torture by the rapporteur who has just finished his term at the United Nations, Nils Melzer. The Australian citizen has been held in Belmarsh high security prison for more than three years, most of that time without charge.
Still, Wong said Labor’s position was the same as that of the previous Liberal-National coalition government, which was openly hostile to Assange and refused to do anything to defend him.
Marles made the same statement on Monday: “This is a UK matter. Like any Australian citizen facing legal proceedings abroad, he will receive consular assistance. In practice, consular assistance boils down to monitoring Assange’s deteriorating health and the progress of the US extradition request.
The claim that the Labor government cannot intervene has been refuted by a host of high-profile public figures.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from Iran last year, where she had been convicted of espionage offenses in what her supporters called a conspiracy. In a lengthy Twitter post, she pointed out that her release was the result of high-level Australian diplomatic intervention.
So did the release of David Hicks from Guantanamo Bay in 2007 and the rescue of Australian journalist Peter Greste from an Egyptian prison in 2015. Moore-Gilbert wrote that “the Australian people cannot accept” that the country’s governments can act to free her and the others she refers to, “but cannot convince our close allies to end their political prosecution of Assange.”
Independent Federal MP Andrew Wilkie shared a statement, saying: “Like many Australians, I have given the new Federal Government plenty of time to settle this matter. Well, it’s too late for the new federal government that feigned compassion and then did nothing. Australia’s new government must now be condemned for abandoning an Australian journalist hero to the very real prospect of spending the rest of his life rotting in an American prison.”
Renowned investigative journalist John Pilger called Albanese a “coward” on Twitter. He added: “Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is giving us a series of devious ambiguities. Foreign Secretary Penny Wong says “we can’t intervene” in the #Assange case. This is rubbish and Wong knows it. Australia has the diplomatic power to bring Julian #Assange home. Failure to do so is treason.”
Such statements from prominent figures reflect a groundswell of opposition from below. Despite a decade of slander, Assange is still widely considered a hero. His persecution is a frontal attack on democratic rights and anti-war sentiment.
The fact that this sentiment has burst into the heart of political life is causing concern in the political establishment.
An editorial ofAge on Sunday was titled: “Time has come for loud voices to be heard on Assange.” He noted that when in opposition, some Labor MPs condemned the Coalition government for its refusal to defend the WikiLeaks founder. But now that they are in power, Labor is essentially taking the same line. Age on Sunday warned that “Albanese’s low-key reaction so far risks disappointing not only his own MPs, but also Assange’s ever-widening base of support.”
Longtime Labor figure Bob Carr told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio on Monday that if Assange were extradited and tried in the United States, it would “ignite anti-Americanism in Australia like never before.” This would not be in the interest of either Australia or the United States, he added.
Carr’s fear is that pursuing Assange threatens to create problems for the US-Australia alliance, under conditions where it is crucial to Washington’s aggressive confrontation with China. Moreover, as a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson pointed out on Monday, the persecution of Assange is an exercise in extraordinary hypocrisy. While claiming to be waging a fight for “freedom” against the “autocracies” of China and Russia, the United States seeks to destroy a journalist for exposing American war crimes.
Above all, Carr fears that the attacks on Assange will become the focus of opposition to US-Australian war measures that target China, amid widespread social anger intensified by the inflation crisis and the campaign. austerity from the ruling elite.
In an attempt to avoid this, Carr claimed Albanese could quietly raise the Assange issue with US President Biden. Earlier this month, he told WikiLeaks supporters, “Don’t criticize Prime Minister Albanese for saying he won’t use a megaphone” to defend Assange.
Everything that is known about Carr in the Assange case indicates that nothing he says should be believed. As Foreign Secretary from 2012 to 2013, he contemptuously dismissed Assange’s family’s pleas for intervention, using exactly the same arguments deployed by the Coalition and the current Labor government. WikiLeaks cables had revealed Carr was operating as a secret US government informant around the time he played a key role in ousting the Labor government of Whitlam in 1975.
The International Committee of the Fourth International and the Socialist Equality Party (PES) have from the outset, in 2010, defended Assange against attacks by governments and pseudo-left groups whose aim was to silence him.
Since 2018, the PES has held a series of rallies and meetings, demanding that the Australian government immediately exercise its legal and diplomatic powers to secure Assange’s freedom. The PES explained that an Australian government would only take such a step if forced to do so by a mass political movement, which is precisely what Carr seeks to prevent.
Against a backdrop of Labor fully embracing US war preparations against China and launching an austerity offensive against the working class, this assessment is clearer than ever.
The struggle for the release of Assange must be rooted in the working class, the only social base capable of defending democratic rights and fighting against war. Around the world, including in Australia, workers are entering major struggles, with strikes and protests breaking out daily. We call on all workers and young people to engage in the struggle to free Assange as a key part of defending their own social and democratic rights.
(Article published in English on June 21, 2022)