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(Image: AAP/Peter Rae)

Now is the time, if ever there was a time, for prominent Australians, especially those on the right, who support Julian Assange, to take their defence of him up a gear.

The Wikileaks founder, currently on remand in London’s Belmarsh prison, has just had a full hearing of his refusal of extradition to the US delayed for months — possibly until November — because preparation of a defence has been impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

Assange has been unable to meet directly with his lawyers, videolinks for court hearings make due process more or less impossible, and lawyers have been unable to interview witnesses.

The court granted the extension. They had little choice. Assange is facing up to 175 years thanks to the US’s absurd draconian sentencing system, on a charge of espionage which revolves around the allegations that he gave another person (presumed to be Chelsea Manning) some informational advice as to how to bypass passwords on locked files.

The British state and judiciary would have loved to rush Assange through to a military rendition flight in orange jump suit and shackles. Paradoxically, it’s the theatrical-but-real severity of the potential US sentence that has made it impossible for the British state to hustle Assange away — since the sentence amounts to a virtual entombment for life in a US supermax prison. 

Such sentences are designed to instil the pure terror of the death penalty in those who go against the US state, while avoiding the UK and other countries’ ban on deportation in death penalty cases.

COVID-19 has given Assange and his team no alternative but to request a delay, despite the fact that this puts Assange’s health in further danger, as he has a lung condition which counts as a major comorbidity for the disease.

The deep disquiet around the treatment of Assange, and the very nature of the charges against him, has been growing in Australia and around the world for some time. 

Even those who have never agreed with many of the actions of Wikileaks, and especially of its conduct during the 2016 US election, have come to realise that this is a brutal and state-dictatorial attack on the basic practice of journalism.

Assange, a non-US citizen, working outside of US soil, is not accused of physical theft of anything, nor of computer hacking; he is accused, under the Espionage Act, of exchanging information with a whistleblower who had already taken electronic information from their military workplace, and needed to access it.

Potentially any journalist who renders active assistance to a whistleblower — from helping them open a locked briefcase, to giving them advice as to how to get a paper file out of a workplace, or even to simply encouraging them to leak — could now be swept up under this new, global extension of a law introduced in WWI (a law aimed at anti-war activists as much as at German spies).

The sheer exercise of the pure, annihilating power of the state is on display here. It is the rare moment, when the US-UK Atlantic alliance is so desperate to punish a new level of openness — created by the Wikileaks cablegate exposes of 2010-11 — that it is willing to unveil the exceptional power behind the facade of actually existing democracy. 

At a time when news media is in dire straits, and much of the spirit of critical journalism has died in the era of “content production”, such an exercise in brute power is designed to scare thousands of everyday journalists, who might otherwise be willing to undertake investigative work, into turning their attention back to TV recaps and lifestyle features. 

The terror of the supermax prison is the terror at the heart of modernity: not that of physical torture and death, but of being flung into lifelong solitary confinement in a bare room, with virtually no human contact, the lights burning 24/7, books and other media strictly limited. 

Because it is not a dungeon or an arctic circle work-gulag, US authorities can claim it as “humane containment”. It isn’t. It’s a system designed to be a living hell by other means, and in that respect it is no different from a gulag or the interment of political prisoners in somewhere like Dachau.

Australia’s prominent figures who oppose this now have to stand up and make an extra effort to represent a widespread national disquiet on the world stage. 

Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd (and Gillard and Albanese if they will, which I doubt) need to make a joint press conference to ramp up the opposition to this. 

Turnbull was a champion (for hire) of openness towards Western spying operations; Rudd is a follower of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian pastor who was executed for his role in plans to assassinate Hitler. They cannot, if they have any consistency, not make this a major focus. It’s now not enough for such people to sign a petition, make the occasional remark. 

Barnaby Joyce and George Christensen, as the right-wing MPs most prominent (for whatever mix of motives) in the campaign to release Assange, have a responsibility to ramp it up too.

The left MPs in this movement will do so, but it is the right, talking in terms of solidarity with Australian nationals, and not deserting them in a London cell, that will start to put the squeeze on the Morrison government. Ideally, the National Party and the Greens need to make a joint statement, and, yes, another joint press conference.

The immediate aim is to get Assange out of remand — his time for breaching bail has been served; he is guilty of no crime — and at the very least, into a facility that is equal to outside living in terms of his health. 

The aim over the rest of this year is to have the Australian government oppose the threat of torturous lifelong incarceration, and for pressure on the UK government to refuse extradition.

The media campaign needs a ramp up too — but so many journalists have been so cowardly, stupid and predictably disappointing on this matter, that a focus on figures actually wielding power becomes the proximate focus.

It’s worth remembering that the pursuit of Assange is being conducted by a US right-wing government that is effectively leaderless, shambolic and opportunistic. 

What of future right-wing US administrations that were of this intent, but focused, efficient, and determined to wipe out critical scrutiny of the US across the world? “First they came for Wikileaks…”, to paraphrase another resistant German pastor. 

The delay in Assange’s hearing is both a respite, but also a further threat to his health. There can’t be any delay in the campaign to free him. The time for a new level of action, from those with the profile to make their voices heard, is now, right now, no other time than now.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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