Julian Assange court
WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court in April 2019 (Image: EPA/stringer)

Things are about to get messy for Australia’s international relationships.

The decision by Swedish prosecutors to close their long-running investigation of Julian Assange (for a second time; the Chief Prosecutor of Stockholm dismissed all but one of the allegations in 2010, before political figures intervened) leaves the Australian government with less and less room to hide on the key question of whether it will object to the prosecution of an Australian for his journalism.

The end of the investigation — a decision that could be appealed by the complainants — removes any hurdle to the extradition of Assange from the United Kingdom to the United States, where he faces 18 criminal charges over his leaks of classified US military documents, which could lead to 175 years in jail.

The UK government has agreed to the extradition, with that decision now to be contested by Assange in UK courts, where there are several precedents for US extradition requests being rejected. If Assange’s appeal is successful, he is likely to be deported to Australia, from where the US could again seek to extradite him.

The Swedish investigation of Assange was always riddled with wild improbabilities, bizarre inconsistencies and a peculiar reluctance by the governments of both countries to ever actually move the investigation forward; Swedish authorities intended to drop the case in 2013 but were dissuaded by the UK government.

Throughout that time, both countries professed outrage that Assange had taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, despite his remaining available for questioning. After repeated, manufactured delays, prosecutors eventually questioned him in 2016, then abandoned their investigation of part of the sexual assault claims in 2017. After Assange was forced out of the embassy by the Ecuadorean government, Sweden briefly re-opened the investigation, leading to a potential clash between extradition requests. That hurdle has now been removed.

Long-time Assange supporter barrister Greg Barns says Assange’s future lies in the hands of the UK courts and, potentially, Australia. “If the UK decides not to extradite Assange, this will become a matter which falls into the lap of the Morrison government,” he said. If Assange wins, he would be returned to Australia as his UK visa has well and truly expired. Once on home soil, he is likely to face new extradition requests by the US. “Then the issue is whether Australia would seek to extradite him,” Barnes said. “We’ve been saying it would be unconscionable for them to do that.” 

But these possibilities are years away, given how long the court process and subsequent appeals are likely to take. For now, Barnes said, Australia should be working on getting Assange — who is seriously ill — assistance in prison.

“It’s incumbent on the Australian government to ensure he’s provided with decent healthcare and is able to prepare his case,” he said. Assange has been detained in isolation without access to legal papers or a computer, according to WikiLeaks, despite his UK lawyers requesting assistance from the Australian government. “The foreign minister and high commissioner need to speak with their counterparts in the UK,” Barnes said. 

The US extradition request for Assange centres on WikiLeaks’ publication of diplomatic material provided by Chelsea Manning, relying on arguments that Assange conspired with Manning to hack US military information systems. The prosecution is widely seen, even by Assange critics, as, in the words of one conservative commentator, “a mortal threat to a free and independent press”.

The Australian government, which is conducting its own war on a free press — with police raids on media outlets and journalists, prosecutions of whistleblowers, and harassment of those who embarrass Scott Morrison’s Coalition — has remained silent on whether an Australian should be extradited for journalism.

This makes for an extraordinary contrast with the government’s activism in relation to other Australians held overseas, whether refugee soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi illegally held in Thailand, Australian travellers Jolie King and Mark Firkin in Iran, Jock Palfreeman in Bulgaria or Australians held in China. In all cases, the government was active in working to secure their release, or vocal about their detention and treatment.

Of course, none of those countries are Australia’s imperial overlord and security guarantor, the United States. But the government’s silence on the prosecution of Assange is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.