The relationship between Australia and the United States has long been cordial and productive. Founded in the same era, both post-colonial democracies and now partners in a 70-year military alliance, we share both our language and our cultural affinities. That relationship has, however, had challenges from its earliest days. In 1804 an Australian sealer, Joseph Murrell, was seized and held captive by a group of Americans who were also hoping to harvest the rich seal colonies of King Island. He described feeling that they were determined “to take such satisfaction of me as should make me dread the sight of an American if I lived”.
More than two centuries later, Julian Assange likely feels the same way. The computer hacker turned editor and activist has been pursued by the US government since 2010, when he published a massive trove of US State Department documents on his not-for-profit website, WikiLeaks.
Those 250,000 confidential cables, provided to him by former US military analyst Chelsea Manning, disclosed alleged war crimes, diplomatic scandals and other misconduct by the US government in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Those documents have been uniquely damaging and embarrassing for the US intelligence services – hence their relentless attempts to secure Assange’s extradition to the US from Britain, where he remains in solitary confinement, in a cell the size of a parking space in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison.
In September I travelled to Washington as part of a parliamentary delegation to advocate on Assange’s behalf. The parliamentary delegation, which travelled at its own cost or with support from the Assange Campaign, included members from across the Australian political divide – Labor, independent, Greens, National and Liberal. We were accompanied by Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton. Over two days, we met with Assange’s US- and UK-based lawyers, the Australian ambassador and embassy staff, representatives from the US State Department and Department of Justice, and numerous Democrat and Republican members of Congress. We also talked with human rights and civil liberty organisations. Our message to all was simple. Julian Assange must be allowed to return home: for his benefit, for the benefit of Australia–US relations and for the greater good of press freedom internationally.
Many of the arguments against Assange have been discounted over time. His personality and behaviour – even his personal hygiene – have been maligned, but the accusations made against him have never been substantiated. It’s been said he’s not a journalist and yet he has received multiple international media prizes, and a Walkley Award. It’s been claimed he placed people’s lives at risk with the publication of confidential documents, but at Chelsea Manning’s trial in 2013 the US State Department explicitly acknowledged it had “no concrete examples of any individual having suffered harm or being exposed to serious threat as a consequence of the publications”.
Assange’s lawyer, London-based Australian Jennifer Robinson, has argued his indictment represents “the most terrifying threat to freedom of speech in the 21st-century”. When she spoke at the National Press Club last year, Robinson repeatedly referred to claims that in 2017 the CIA plotted to kidnap or assassinate Assange while he was a political refugee in London. She suggested that, if extradited, he might be subjected to special administrative measures, a regime of extreme isolation described by human rights groups as inhumane and possibly amounting to torture.
The past 14 years have been hard for Assange. Initially confined in the Ecuadorian embassy, and more recently in Belmarsh Prison, he has grown increasingly frail. During this period, he has married and had two sons, Gabriel and Max. His wife, Stella, has expressed concerns about his deteriorating physical and mental health. He had a minor stroke in 2021. Stella Assange has said she believes he will commit suicide if extradited to maximum-security conditions in the US. Nils Melzer, the former UN special rapporteur on torture, has described the ongoing “cruel and unusual punishment” of Julian Assange as “slow-motion murder”.
Rome to grant honorary citizenship to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
In a bold move symbolizing solidarity with those facing violations of fundamental rights, Rome has announced its intention to confer honorary citizenship upon Julian Assange, the embattled founder of WikiLeaks. The announcement was made by city councilor Antonella Melito on Tuesday, noting that the process will be finalized once the necessary documentation is in place.
Assange, currently 52 years old, remains imprisoned at London's high-security Belmarsh Prison. Since 2019, he has been contending against extradition to the US. There, he faces potential life imprisonment due to WikiLeaks' 2010 release of classified US Army intelligence associated with the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Melito underscored that through this symbolic gesture, Rome aims to project a message of unity and backing for individuals who are unjustly detained and condemned, infringing upon their essential rights.
This proposal to bestow honorary citizenship upon the Australian activist was initiated by Rome's former mayor, Virginia Raggi. Emphasizing the importance of this decision, Raggi took to social media, stating that this marked a significant move towards safeguarding both Julian Assange as an individual and as a representative symbol. She further stressed the paramount importance of persistently defending press freedom, drawing attention to Assange's predicament.
Interestingly, earlier this year, Stella, Assange's wife, had an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Reflecting on the encounter, she revealed to the Catholic Herald magazine that the Pope had extended a letter of support to her husband in March 2021. This gesture by Pope Francis provided a beacon of hope during a particularly challenging time for Assange, especially after a UK court's refusal to grant him bail, despite concerns over his prospective treatment in the US.
WikiLeaks/ The Saturday Paper