Julian Assange’s decision to seek asylum in Ecuador is, in the Australian vernacular, the percentage play. The only certainties that Assange knows are that the US government wants him, and that the Australian government has consistently shown — and continues to show — it is unwilling to do anything beyond the consular niceties to protect him.

To seek asylum, rather than to seek to address the allegations against him in Sweden (although Assange has repeatedly offered to be interviewed by Swedish authorities in the UK over the past 18 months), will undoubtedly further damage Assange’s reputation. The stain of “alleged r-pist” will always follow him, until the claims are resolved.

But Assange knows that the Vice-President of the United States has called him a terrorist. He knows that the Obama administration readily kills those it labels terrorists, even if they are US citizens, and even if they aren’t terrorists, without due process. He knows that a grand jury has been empanelled and has, according to those with connections inside the US security establishment, produced a sealed indictment against him. Being extradited to Sweden increases the risk that he will be surrendered to the United States where an uncertain fate awaits.

But who exactly is Assange claiming asylum from? Australia. Our government, he says, has effectively abandoned him, and produced as part of his justification the recent correspondence from Attorney-General Nicola Roxon to lawyer Jennifer Robinson declaring the government was unwilling to intervene on his behalf.

Whatever the merits of Assange’s claim of “effective abandonment”, it is clear that the Foreign Minister’s claim that no Australian has had more consular support than Assange simply doesn’t stand up — and demonstrably not while Bob Carr is in Libya attempting to free an Australian lawyer. Further, it has made plain it has no concerns about a US campaign against one of its own citizens that is based entirely on his activities as a journalist and publisher.

In that regard, even if it hasn’t legally “abandoned” Assange, it has been derelict in its defence of the basic right of free speech.

****

The bad news for Australian media continues this afternoon: Kim Williams is expected to outline significant cuts at News Limited’s media operations at 1.45pm AEST. We’ll have complete coverage online and in your inbox soon after.

Peter Fray

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