REPRINT (C) Credits Rick Morton of Saturday Paper - Nov27 , 2019
Extracts from an article first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Saving Assange". Subscribe here.
This week, Swedish authorities announced they would no longer be pursuing a final charge of sexual assault against Assange. Assange is currently being held in near-solitary confinement in London’s Belmarsh prison
Wilkie distils the sprawling legal case as such: “There is a question mark over whether it is even legal for [Assange] to be extradited from the UK to America.
“WHAT WE ARE ASKING POLITICIANS TO DO IS TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN [HIS] ACTIVITIES AND THE LAW.”It is this notion, loosely flowing from the legal principle of habeas corpus – literally “that you have the body” – which has brought Barnaby Joyce to the fray. “I come at this from the pure legal principle and the fact of our own sovereignty,” the Nationals MP tells The Saturday Paper.
“If you are not in the country that has accused you of the crime, then this becomes an arbitrary process.”
Joyce, Wilkie and Christensen will be joined at the table on Monday by independent Zali Steggall, Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie and Rex Patrick, Labor’s Julian Hill and Steve Georganas, and Greens MPs Peter Whish-Wilson and Adam Bandt. They will be briefed by Julian Assange’s London-based lawyer Jennifer Robinson and Australian barrister Greg Barns.
“The Australian government faces a very stark choice. Are they prepared to see an Australian citizen hunted down by the Trump administration to face 175 years in prison? Or are we prepared to do what we did in the David Hicks case, which is to say, ‘No, he is one of ours’ and stand up to them,” Barns tells The Saturday Paper. What the group doesn’t have yet, as far as membership, is anyone from the Liberal Party. While Barns is set to meet with some Liberal MPs next week, he won’t name names. There is a reluctance, it seems, to be seen supporting Assange – not least because, in some corners of the internet, the views of his backers border on religious fanaticism.
Joyce says that when he addressed the Nationals party room about Assange he was met with mostly vacant stares and silence – except from an enthusiastic George Christensen. “They agree but they’re not necessarily going to look like they agree,” says Joyce. “I’m disappointed with the silence on both sides of politics.”
But Barns thinks this is starting to change. “Like the Hicks case, these issues often take time to develop and I think there is increasing concern now in the Australian community that Julian is effectively facing the death penalty,” he says. “The most immediate issue for us is Julian’s mental and physical health and his inability to prepare properly for his case. He is being held in an inhumane environment.”
A bright spot, says Barns, is that Assange has now received consular assistance from the Australian government.
As with many things in Julian Assange’s life, this is a story about global power and the choices governments make, or refuse to make, that may upset the accepted order. This reality is not lost on the parliamentary group.
Joyce says he is worried about the precedent that would be set in Australia’s dealings with China if the government of which he is a member acquiesces on issues of legal principle to please an ally.
For his part, Joyce has been consistent on this issue since the capture of David Hicks and his detention in Guantanamo Bay – a case that now bears remarkable similarities to Assange’s own.
Wilkie says he is surprised the political momentum has brought them this far.
Parliamentary friendship groups, he explains, are not formal committees but they do have to meet some strict criteria. They must be truly cross-parliamentary in their membership and “generally not too controversial”, and leaders of both the senate and the house of representatives need to approve them.
“I was delighted that the presiding officers did approve it,” he says. “I must admit to some small surprise that they did.”
“It’s fair to say ours might be the broadest church,” Wilkie says. “It took a very long time to get some members and to get the minimum number of 10 required. Now all that is missing are some pure Liberals.”
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