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Jun 12, 2012

Julian Assange -- better off smuggling weapons in Baghdad?

A previously unreported case shows Australian diplomats can move quickly to help Australians in strife when they want to. So why not Julian Assange?

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Evidence has emerged that disputes Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s claim Julian Assange has received as much or more consular support in a comparable period than other Australians, and that anything further would amount to interference in another country’s judicial process.

On the day following the UK Supreme Court decision ruling in favour of Assange’s extradition under a European Arrest Warrant, Carr held a press conference at Parliament House in which he said “as far as I can tell there’s been no Australian who’s received more consular support in a comparable period than Mr Assange”. Both Carr and the Prime Minister, asked later that day about Assange during question time, have emphasised their inability to interfere in the judicial processes of other countries.

Until now, such comments have been analysed in the context of the treatment of other well-known cases of Australians held overseas. In October, the Prime Minister personally called a 14-year-old boy charged with marijuana possession in Bali. Convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby received “substantial” financial support for her legal costs and the offer of two QCs pro bono from the Howard government and was supported by the current government in her recent bid for clemency.

But what appears to be the previously unreported case of Australian Bradley John Thompson has been unearthed from the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables by Maitland lawyer and human rights activist Kellie Tranter. Thompson was arrested in Baghdad on May 16, 2006 by a joint US-Iraqi police operation which “found evidence that Mr Thompson had been smuggling weapons into the International Zone in hidden compartments of vehicles and selling those weapons illegally to customers possibly including Jaish al-Mahdi militia members and insurgents operating in Fallujah”.

The cable, from the US Embassy in Baghdad to the State and Justice Departments, the FBI, the White House and American diplomats here, states:

“A search of Mr Thompson’s villa (located inside the International Zone) at the time of his detention found twenty AK-47 automatic rifles, three Russian belt-fed tank-type heavy machine guns, a sizeable quantity of ammunition, Iraqi, Australian, and US military uniforms, computer software used to create false military identification badges, and $128,000 USD cash.”

Australian consul Alan Elliott had already visited Thompson and relayed his claim that he had been authorised by the coalition military forces in Iraq to sell weapons, a claim the Americans denied.

At the time, the Howard government was coming under increasing pressure over its abandonment of David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay. Howard would eventually negotiate a deal with US vice-president Dick Cheney early in 2007 for a speedy trial and dispatch to Australia of Hicks.

On May 24, Australian ambassador Howard Brown and Elliott met with senior figures in the coalition military force and US political-military counsellor David C. Litt (third in charge at the US Embassy) to discuss Thompson’s case, and then followed it up subsequently via email to the Americans. According to the cable, Brown and Elliott sought — and obtained — significant changes to Thompson’s treatment:

“Ambassador Brown requested that Mr Thompson not be blindfolded and shackled when being moved to and from visiting rooms. (NOTE: this is standard procedure for new inmates at Camp Cropper, which houses highly violent insurgent actors as well as other special populations meriting private cells, like female and Coalition nationals.) The DCG-DO agreed.

“According to Ambassador Brown, Mr Thompson has retained a US attorney, LtCol (Ret.) Neal A. Puckett, USMC, to represent him. The DCG-DO confirmed that LtCol Puckett would be allowed to meet with Mr Thompson either at Camp Cropper or (if preferred) at an Iraqi courthouse inside the International Zone. Requests for continued Consular telephone and in-person access to Mr Thompson were also granted.

“In response to follow-up e-mails from the Australian Consul on May 26, Post arranged for Mr Thompson to telephone Mr Elliot’s cell phone and Mr Thompson’s sister in Australia, assured Mr Elliott that he would be permitted to visit Mr Thompson prior to any future appearance in Iraqi court, and provided contact information for Mr Thompson’s American legal counsel to make visiting arrangements.”

In February, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided details of its contacts with Assange’s legal team, which totalled 18 email, fax, phone or face-to-face contacts during 2011, plus contacts with his lawyers at his trial hearings. The Department also says it obtained verbal assurances from Swedish authorities that Assange would be afforded due process, and told Greens senator Scott Ludlam recently during Senate Estimates that “the US is aware of our expectations in respect of due process”.

The issue of Assange’s detention once he arrives in Sweden, and the conditions of that detention, such as being denied contact with anyone but his lawyers, appear not to have been raised.

The issue of non-intervention in other countries’ legal processes is a straw man repeatedly used by the government; no one has suggested the government should, or has the power to, directly intervene in Swedish s-xual assault investigations or US espionage indictments. But the Thompson case clearly demonstrates the government can move quickly — within a matter of days — to request the treatment of an Australian national be ameliorated and his legal rights strengthened.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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34 thoughts on “Julian Assange — better off smuggling weapons in Baghdad?

  1. Paperchaser

    Chess C, AR, sorry, I should have specified that I was looking for explanations that made sense.

    Of course the US has been looking for a way to indict. Of course Australia can’t commit to trying to stop it or his extradition to the US without being officially informed of what charges would be involved. Why would you expect anything else? If the indictment could demonstrate to that Assange’s actions were the direct cause of the death of sensitive contacts, why wouldn’t he be indicted, and what moral argument could the Australian government put forward in such a case for fighting his indictment and extradition? How would you non-equivocally word that sort of statement? “Well, yes, he could have avoided such-and-such being killed by changing a published encryption key, but by golly he’s Australian and you’d better not boss him around!” Yeah, that’ll be great.

    All of this is a moot point, of course, as if there was a conspiracy, there would have been an indictment already, and that indictment would have got him out of the UK under the liberal terms of the UK-US extradition treaty before Sweden was allowed to start its own process. What Assange’s legal team is doing now is taking a lot of time to forestall him facing sexual assault charges, while pretending he’s actually a super-cooperative political martyr who should be reasonably allowed to expect the sort of precedent-setting exceptionalism of being investigated out of the Swedish embassy.

    I’m aware of claims made in Crikey and from pro-Assange groups (no one else) that an extradition from Sweden to the US would be easier than an extradition from the UK or most other countries by some sort of “loan extradition”. Those claims ignore the terms of Swedish law, which would still prioritise his prosecution in Sweden over charges faced elsewhere, and probably forbid his extradition given the long timeframe that would be involved in an espionage case.

    And given that Sweden has comprehensive laws banning extradition for “political” crimes, even a few super-rabid-pro-American nutters in Swedish politics wouldn’t be able to prevent a long, drawn-out legal fight over Assange’s extradition that would make any fuss over corraling him from the UK look like taking candy from a baby on a diet.

    Has it occurred to you that you may be sticking your head in the sand over the fact that Sweden prosecutes sexual assault more actively than most countries, and certainly more actively than this one? Assange probably could have got away with nailing some women without a condom despite their objections in most countries – disgusting but true. Instead he chose Sweden, and now he is where he is. If there was a conspiracy involved, he’d be somewhere else altogether, and you might have a point.

  2. Paperchaser

    This is a joke, right? The need “to request the treatment of an Australian national be ameliorated and his legal rights strengthened” between kids arrested in Indonesia or someone in an American war prison in Iraq (facing punishments that aren’t on the same planet as the worst Assange could get in Sweden for sexual assault) and between someone under house arrest in the UK and heading to Sweden is not on the same planet.

    I’d suggest that Assange has probably indeed got as much consular support and probably more consular contact than most Australians who get accused of sexual assault in one European country and then extradited from another. Or maybe you can just keep imagining that no foreigners in Europe ever have to answer sexual assault charges, and the European Arrest Warrant provisions are never used for sexual offences, unless desired by the Americans for their own nefarious purposes.

    And while all of the conspiracy theorists are still awake, can one of them explain why Assange wouldn’t be directly extradited from the UK to the US on trumped-up charges if that was the end goal of all this? It’s not as though the UK hasn’t got the right sort of framework for that sort of extradition, given that Assange’s upcoming trip to Sweden is being blamed on the same set of UK extradition laws the US would also use – the UK ratified the European Arrest Warrant provisions and the VERY liberal US-UK extradition treaty under the same set of 2003 approvals. And the US-UK treaty would make extradition much more legally straightforward than the US-Sweden treaty.

    Some countries pursue sexual assault cases, kids. Deal with it. Assange is going to have to.

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