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Australia

Apr 2, 2013

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Julian Assange is, as they say, in the mix when it comes to who might win the sixth Senate seat in Victoria at the September 14 federal election. He is a candidate with an established high profile, he attracts support from across the political landscape, and the issues he stands for resonate with an electorate disillusioned with the mega spin cycle of the Australian political process.

Of course, Assange has some quirks about his campaign which make him unique in this country, although there are precedents in other democracies. That is, he is an Australian citizen who has sought asylum in the embassy of Ecuador in London. Assange is there because he rightly fears that the Swedish prosecuting authorities, who want to question him on allegations of s-xual assault, will hand him across to the United States.

A poll by the ALP pollster UMR last May is instructive in assessing the chances of Assange’s bid for the Senate. Assange is highly thought of by voters across the political parties — 66% of Greens voters like him, as do 45% of ALP voters and 40% of Coalition voters. Assange polled around 27% in voting support. UMR’s boss John Utting said that on those numbers Assange could take the sixth Senate spot from the Greens, on the basis that 14.29% of the vote is required to win the final Senate position.

Naturally the numbers for Assange will drop in the context of an election campaign where the major parties hog the media, and Assange is subjected to a negative campaign about the fact that he is not in Australia and may not be able to take his Senate seat. But from where I sit the strong support for Assange is a good place to start a campaign for election.

It would be a mistake to see Assange’s Senate campaign as being about him alone. Assange will have other candidates running with him on the Senate ticket and the newly formed WikiLeaks Party will be running candidates for the Senate in New South Wales. The Senate and the WikiLeaks Party are a good match — the former is meant to be the house of review, of scrutiny and about keeping the executive in check, the latter is about the values of accountability and transparency, alongside protecting individual liberty against government.

Assange would not be the first person to be elected to a parliament but who could not, or would not take up his or her seat. In 1981 Bobby Sands, a hunger striker in a Northern Ireland prison was elected to the UK Parliament. In the same context, those MPs elected in Northern Ireland from Sinn Fein refused to take up their seats at Westminster.

If confronted with the prospect of an individual elected by the people of Victoria not being able to take up his seat after the September election, the Gillard or Abbott government might even be tempted to do what has not been done to date — use its diplomatic capital to ensure Assange can return to Australia. Failing that, the WikiLeaks Party would look at its legal options and its number two candidate on the Victorian Senate ticket would be in a position to take the party’s seat in Canberra. In short, the challenge of running a campaign in the circumstances Assange finds himself in is not insurmountable by any means.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the WikiLeaks campaign for political junkies will be where it takes its votes from. The strong level of support for Assange and the values WikiLeaks stands for tells us that votes are likely to come from across the parties. The WikiLeaks Party is not a party of the Australian left or right. Nor are its roots in environmentalism. Philosophically this makes it a genuinely different voice and in an election where the race to the lowest common denominator and populism will be the hallmark of the ALP and Coalition campaigns — this makes for an attractive alternative.

Links

Jul 19, 2012

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Europe

Apr 20, 2012

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Within weeks or days, WikiLeaks supremo and now TV host Julian Assange will find out from the UK Supreme Court whether he is to be extradited to Sweden for further questioning on four accusations (no charges have been laid) on sexual matters — two misdemeanour “annoyance” accusations, one of sexual coercion and one of third degree sexual assault/rape.

Now, in a case already mired in controversy, new evidence has come to light, which suggests that the testimony of one of the complainants has been fabricated in order to supply sufficient evidence to “fit” a criminal charge.

Comparison between the evidence given by Anna Ardin, the complainant attached to the first three accusations, and the legal wording of the key complaint by her against Assange, show that it is suspiciously similar to a paragraph in a high-profile 2009 Amnesty International Report on sex crimes in the Nordic countries.

The passage in question is significant because it establishes the minimum degree of physical coercion required to make a felony charge of sexual coercion in Sweden.

Here is the passage from the Amnesty report, first published in 2009:

“In Norway and Sweden, the letter of the law allows even slight use of force to be interpreted as constituting r-pe: it may be sufficient for the perpetrator to “impede the victim’s movements” for example by holding the victim’s arms to pin her/him down, by applying body weight or by forcing the victim’s legs apart.”

And here is the accusation made by the Swedish prosecutor, as part of the process of investigation, after the case was re-opened in September 2010:

Claimed offence one:

“On 13th-14th August 2010, in the home of the injured party [AA] in Stockholm, Assange, by using violence, forced the injured party to endure his restricting her freedom of movement. The violence consisted in a firm hold of the injured party’s arms and a forceful spreading of her legs while lying on top of her and with his body weight preventing her from moving or shifting.”

Ardin’s evidence, which forms the ostensible basis of the above accusation, follows the itinerary of the Amnesty paragraph fairly closely (I’ve excerpted it below)*.

The similar nature of the accusations in the Amnesty report and Ardin’s evidence (something that sites such as Swedenversusassange.com have earlier pointed to), is significant due to both the atrocious and corrupt and/or incompetent conduct of the investigation of Assange, and of the wider political context in which the accusations have been made.

In summary (a detailed account is below), the near identikit police record/accusation/Amnesty report come amidst a police investigation characterised by an investigation begun peremptorily by an untrained prosecutor, dismissed the next day by a senior prosecutor, reinstated by a prosecutor known for advocating the expansion of the “s-x crimes” remit, following the involvement of former government ministers as legal counsel, the destruction and alternation of evidence by Anna Ardin, allegations of police coercion by the other complainant (Sofia Wilen), the close involvement of a police officer, Irmeli Krans, who was a political associate of Ardin’s in the initial investigation, her public commenting on the process (during prosecution), and a reprimand and investigation by the police board, and conflicting evidence of collusion between the complainants and others in subsequent witness statements to the police.

The correspondence between the Amnesty report and the accusation against Assange can only increase speculation that the pursuit of Assange has become politically motivated as part of the fraught politics of s-x crime in Sweden. The country has a respectable level of s-x crime prosecution — around 4.7 convictions per 100,000 people, nearly triple the Europe average of 1.8, and far in excess of some countries (Portugal’s rate is 0.5, for example).

However, Sweden also has one of the highest rates of inquiry about and report of s-x crimes — the rate of s-x crime reporting has gone up more than 500% since 1975. In particular, it leapt sharply when a new s-x crimes bill was introduced in 2005-6 — inaugurated by a dying Social Democrat administration, brought in by the new Moderate Party government.

Since then, different parts of the Swedish state have been at loggerheads. The law, despite clichéd views of Sweden, is actually less transformative than the UK-Australian s-x crime laws on which it is based. In the latter, active consent has become the centre of the law, without physical coercion. In Sweden, bizarrely, coercion of some sort must be present, but non-duress consent does not rule out prosecution.

This has created an enormous mess — on the one hand it raises the evidentiary demand for incidents such as acquaintance r-pe, yet on the other it removes agency from women in a whole series of grey areas — rough s-x, drunk (but conscious) s-x, s-x in exchange for drugs, etc. The result has been some hair-raising convictions in cases that may be no more than fraught encounters — and acquittals in acquaintance r-pe cases that would have gained convictions elsewhere. Indeed, since the law , the acquittal rate in Swedish s-x crime trials has gone up, from 22% to 33% of tried cases.

This has created a complex cultural-social war in Sweden. The ample feminist state apparatuses in the country allege that the Moderate party has underfunded investigation of s-x crimes, thus allowing for the prosecution and conviction gap. Others argue that prosecuting authorities bring too many cases of insufficient evidence. Continue reading “Rundle: pursuit of Assange a product of fraught Swedish sex crime politics”

News

Apr 18, 2012

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This article has been updated on 3 May 2012 – see below

After dodging and delaying FOI requests about its consideration of the case of Julian Assange for months, the government has blocked the release of any material that would reveal its internal legal deliberations over Assange’s extradition to the United States.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam made an FOI application to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Attorney-General’s Department and their respective ministerial offices in December seeking documents relating to “the potential extradition or temporary surrender” of Assange to the US.

The response of the government has been a litany of excuses and self-justifications.

After several months, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is still seeking to avoid responding. In March, DFAT said it would take them a remarkable four months to process the request and demanded that Ludlam justify why a request for documents about Assange’s extradition was a matter in the public interest. At the end of March, DFAT demanded another 30 days on top of the four months, on the basis that they’d only just realised they would have to consult with foreign governments over the request.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet quickly fobbed off the request entirely by claiming that the request “would unreasonably divert the resources of the department”, an excuse permitted under s.24 of the FOI Act.

So far only Attorney-General’s has responded, after trying to unsuccessfully convince the Information Commissioner to re-extend the deadline for responding, and actually breaching the response deadline. The result (PDF), when it finally arrived in late March, featured extensive use of the famous black highlighter and bordered on nonsensical.

Among the treasures served up by Attorney-General’s were:

  • Emails relating to AGD secretary Roger Wilkins questions about Assange’s extradition, redacted to the point of meaninglessness, on the basis of “legal professional privilege”;
  • Detailed advice to Wilkins about Assange’s extradition, including the issue of his facing the death penalty, was entirely redacted (legal professional privilege)
  • A question time brief for Robert McClelland, in which both the talking points and the background material is almost entirely redacted because it “could cause damage to Australia’s international relations”
  • Emails between departmental staff about a request from McClelland’s office for “lines” for use in response to possible questions about Assange after a newspaper article.
  • Correspondence from people concerned about the issue and media articles
  • Some of the Greens’ own correspondence and notices of motion, one of which was bizarrely redacted despite being a public document.

The redactions prevent any assessment of what exactly the government knows about the US government’s sealed indictment for Assange. The government has played dumb on the issue, publicly declaring it knows nothing about the matter, despite it apparently being common knowledge in Washington circles (as revealed by the Stratfor emails) that a sealed indictment against Assange had been issued.

Update

Late today the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sought an additional month to respond to Senator Ludlam’s FOI request “on the basis that continuing international consultation and the complexity of decision-making required prior to finalising the documents for release.” The continuing consultation raises the possibility of the US or Swedish governments seeking to veto the release of documents under Freedom of Information. DFAT’s deadline for responding will, if the Office of the Information Commissioner agrees, be extended to 3 June (DFAT has withdrawn the claim that it will take it 4 months to process the request). The new deadline effectively ensures that the Australian Government’s position vis-à-vis Assange won’t be revealed before the outcome of his appeal against his European Arrest Warrant is concluded.

Companies

Dec 19, 2011

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US State department cables released by WikiLeaks have provided dramatic revelations, often stemming from information contained in a few cables. However, the bulk of the archive consists of routine reports. These reports allow us to examine how the US implements specific foreign policy programs through its diplomatic missions.

One such program — “Blue Lantern” — provides end-use monitoring of items on the United States Munitions List. Such items range from those with broad civilian uses, such as gyroscopes, to significant military equipment such as tanks and aircraft.

Listed equipment is usually bought via intermediaries. For example, the cables document the purchase of night vision equipment by the New Zealand Police, sourced from Norway via an Australian company. The company exporting the item must obtain a licence, documenting the chain of consignees as well as the intended use by the recipient.

The cables provide startling details of frequent — and sometimes successful — attempts to circumvent export regulations.

End-use checks sometimes detect issues before the items have been shipped. It was found that a former Thai naval officer signed a fraudulent government end-use document, having entered employment with a private defence company. A Paraguayan business was discovered to be operating from a household containing a vast collection of un-inventoried weapons, likely to be supplied to drug and arms traffickers.

However, the problems discovered after the fact are far more worrying. Spare parts for the Chinook helicopter (operated by Iran) were delivered to a non-existent employee of a major defence contractor in Italy, vanishing untraceably. Helicopters originally sold to the Israeli government were demilitarised and exported to Colombia on false documents. These helicopters were then used to move cash and valuables for a suspected money launderer with ties to paramilitaries.

One cable documents suspicions — apparently ignored — that weapons were sold to the United Arab Emirates for hunting use by the President’s son. Controlled night-vision sniper equipment was found on sale to the Japanese public via the internet. Thailand was found to be trading longan fruit for military vehicles.

The interests of US companies can conflict with rigorous end-use checks. One cable indicates an investigation into unauthorised modification of Humvee vehicles by the Greek military was conducted with “sensitivity” in order to avoid endangering future orders.

The link between the US government and US commercial interests is not unknown to their foreign competitors. A French company selling military robotics refused to provide its client list for fear that it would be passed to US companies, alleging that this had previously occurred.

According to the cables, the Australian Department of Defence routinely co-operates with the Blue Lantern program. The Defence Export Control Office (DECO) checks for “derogatory information”, and provides details of previously issued export licences, listing the overseas entities Australian defence contractors do business with.

Crikey contacted the Department of Defence to inquire under what authority this data access is provided, and what confidentiality Australian companies might expect when seeking an export licence. A government spokesperson responded only that the Australian government will not provide commentary on documents published by WikiLeaks.

An Australian defence procurer contacted by Crikey was unaware that information about their company had been passed by DECO to the US State Department, but was not concerned that it had. They did indicate displeasure that the information had been leaked and is now widely available.

This article lists only some examples of the widespread circumvention of US export regulations documented in the cable archive. Many Western nations — including Australia — export arms within a similar framework. The cable archive provided by WikiLeaks has shown the questionable effectiveness of such frameworks in controlling the proliferation of weaponry. Change is required if governments are serious about minimising unintended harm from this deadly trade.

Federal

Dec 19, 2011

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Despite the complexities of European arrest warrants, the methods of the Swedish criminal justice system and the confusing claims about his behaviour in Sweden in August 2010, the Julian Assange case should be, from the perspective of the Australian government, relatively simple.

As an Australian citizen, Assange has a right to expect his government will seek to ensure that he is accorded due process by other countries seeking to prosecute him. And all of us should legitimately expect that our government will not stand by while a journalist engaged in the endeavour of holding governments to account and bringing transparency to their actions is threatened and prosecuted.

This applies regardless of whether you like WikiLeaks or not, whether you approve of its release of US diplomatic cables, or war logs from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, or any other material that has embarrassed governments, companies, NGOs, prominent individuals or even climate scientists since 2006.

Some reject the view that Assange is a journalist. But those who think so might try to explain why to bodies as diverse as the Walkley Foundation, the United Kingdom High Court, the Australian editors and proprietors who wrote to the Prime Minister a year ago to note that in publishing the diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks was doing “what the media have always done”, or the committee behind Britain’s Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, which awarded Assange its 2010 prize. The inaugural winner of that prize, by the way, was Guardian journalist Nick Davies, these days a serial critic of Assange.

The Australian government’s reaction to Assange’s legal plight and the WikiLeaks revelations has been peculiarly polarised. There was the embarrassment of the Prime Minister incorrectly describing the release of the diplomatic cables as “an illegal act”, then-Attorney-General Robert McClelland claiming Australian laws had been broken (since refuted by the Australian Federal Police) and that the government had considered cancelling Assange’s passport, and the government strengthening the powers of ASIO in order to enable the domestic intelligence agency to spy on WikiLeaks.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, on the other hand, has implicitly rebuked his colleagues by rejecting the cancellation of Assange’s passport and providing consular support services for him. Rudd’s diplomats also sought, on three separate occasions a year ago and early this year, assurances that Assange would be afforded due process by the Swedish government in relation to the allegations against him.

Should Assange lose his appeal, or decide to go to Sweden anyway in order to address the claims against him,”due process” will involve his being remanded in custody despite the lack of any charges being laid against him, and being held incommunicado. While this wouldn’t be accepted in Australia, there is no suggestion Assange should be afforded special treatment in Sweden. However, the circumstances of his custody in Sweden would facilitate extradition to United States, should it be sought, via the mechanism of “temporary surrender”.

It is “temporary surrender” that most concerns Assange’s lawyers, supporters and those who have signed this letter. The concern is that “temporary surrender”, in which someone charged in two countries is handed from one to the other, evades the normal requirements of due process and legal rights afforded to anyone being extradited to another country. If those concerns are well-founded, Assange’s arrival in Sweden and entry into custody there could be the precursor to a rapid extradition to the United States.

Some lawyers believe there is minimal threat to Assange from the “temporary surrender mechanism”. We hope they are correct. But there remains a substantial risk they are not. Moreover, “temporary surrender” from Sweden is merely one option for the US government; if that fails, it is likely to pursue others. How do we know? Because when it comes to WikiLeaks, the US government has form. It instigated an illegal financial blockade of WikiLeaks that continues today. The Department of Justice played a key role in bringing together the cyber security firms that developed a plan to attack WikiLeaks and its supporters.

The Vice-President has called Assange a “high-tech terrorist” despite administration officials conceding no harm resulted from the leaking of diplomatic cables. Bradley Manning has been pressured to cooperate with US military investigators to implicate Assange in the leaking of the diplomatic cables, war logs and combat videos. And the US Department of State has claimed Assange is not a journalist, but rather a “political actor”, because he has “political objectives”, a bizarre line from the home country of Fox News and MSNBC. But depriving Assange of his status as a journalist is important to the US government’s attempts to manufacture an indictment against him.

Given all this, who can seriously suggest Assange would receive a fair trial in the United States? And given the number of public figures who have suggested he be harmed or assassinated, how could his safety even be guaranteed in custody there?

As the letter to Rudd makes clear, this is more than a question of ensuring Assange is afforded due process. There are larger issues at stake than an individual’s fate or even that of WikiLeaks. The successful harassment, extradition and prosecution of Assange for his journalism will be a profound blow against a free press not merely in the United States but across the globe.

The Australian government faces a key decision — whether to continue to allow its enthusiasm for the US alliance and Julia Gillard’s apparent reflexive support of the Obama administration to colour its actions on Julian Assange, or whether it makes clear to the Americans that the persecution of an Australian journalist for embarrassing the US is unacceptable to a democratic government.

*Bernard Keane helped coordinate and signed a letter to the Foreign Minister and Attorney-General about Julian Assange

Media

Dec 6, 2011

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WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange won a small battle against the push to extradite him to Sweden, with the High Court allowing him the opportunity to petition the Supreme Court to hear his appeal. Assange’s legal team has 14 days to make the request, and there is no guarantee it will be granted. If the Supreme Court refuses to take the case, the extradition process will resume, and Assange will be removed to Sweden, most likely some time in January. Should they take the appeal, the process will stretch over several months, well into next year.

Technically, the court rejected Assange’s appeal, saying that the court itself would not refer the matter to the Supreme Court — but also certified one of the two grounds, on which his appeal was based, the argument as to whether a prosecutor (who issued the warrant that sparked the extradition process) was an independent judicial authority, as required by the European Arrest Warrant system. The “certification” of that point acknowledges that it is a matter of “general public importance” on a point of law.

The challenge goes to the heart of an unresolved issue around the European Arrest Warrant — that it covers systems with both independent judiciaries (chiefly the UK, and those where the judiciary and the executive are more closely involved). It is far from the only problem with the European Arrest Warrant, and as one of the High Court judges remarked, Assange’s chances of winning his appeal are “slim” — but if it were to succeed, it would throw the whole European Arrest Warrant system (especially as that applies to the UK) into deep trouble, since European prosecutors routinely have a judicial role.

The case has come at a time when disquiet about the European Arrest Warrant has been growing in Britain — indeed it coincided with a debate in the Commons over a motion brought by Tory backbencher Dominic Raab, over the European Arrest Warrant and the US/UK fast-track extradition treaty. That debate ended with a bill being voted up, demanding “urgent reform” to the US-UK treaty and the European Arrest Warrant , with support from within all parties.

Links

Nov 29, 2011

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Journalism

Nov 28, 2011

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The awarding of WikiLeaks with the prize for contribution to journalism in last night’s Walkey awards again raises the questions of what is a journalist and what is journalism?

That’s not surprising. Citizen journalism is with us, and so too is the global publication of pictures, news and information by people who would never think to call themselves journalists, but who find themselves caught up in events that people want to know about.

Locally, we have a media inquiry that is canvassing the issue of whether membership of the Australian Press Council should be a criteria for deciding who gets the special legal protections and access rights that are given to those organisations that claim to do journalism. Would WikiLeaks join the Australia Press Council? It is an interesting question to ponder.

The question of whether Julian Assange is a journalist or not has come up before. This is not the first award for journalism he has won — he got the Martha Gelhorn prize earlier this year.

Some of the newspapers who worked with Assange, then fell out with him, have claimed they treated him as “just another source”. Baloney. This source had the biggest and best leak in history.

Unlike the purveyor of the Pentagon Papers or other leakers of time past, he did not need mainstream media to get the information out there. He collaborated with mainstream media because it suited him, not because it was his only option.

On the other hand the US State Department has pronounced that Assange is not a journalist, in part because he is a “political actor”.

That is clearly a risible reason for saying he doesn’t qualify. If we disqualified people on the basis of being political actors, we would have to rule out all those journos who have worked as political staffers before returning to journalism. We would also have to rule out all those who engage in polemic as part of what they do — journalists from Greg Sheridan to John Pilger.

There has been a debate floating around in recent months about whether Andrew Bolt is a journalist. On one measure, he surely is. He trained in a newsroom, worked for mainstream media, and had a fairly conventional career path.

Yet now he writes mainly commentary. The recent court case in which he was involved found that, on at least two occasions, that commentary was built on a faulty factual base, and indeed that the facts were skewed to suit his polemical point. So is he no longer a journalist. Or were those columns merely instances of bad journalism?

We could go round and round like this. And that’s without even starting on the issue of whether or not journalism is a profession, analagous to law or medicine, or a craft — an issue I don’t intend to canvass here.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the question of “what is a journalist?” is potent in our own time. Journalism as a paid occupation was the byproduct of the invention of the printing press, and all that followed. Given that we are now living through at least the equivalent in technological innovation, we shouldn’t be surprised that the future of the occupation is in question, and that its boundaries are blurring.

As we live through this transition, I think it is more helpful to ask not “what is a journalist?”, but “what is journalism?”. That is, to see journalism as a practice that many people might engage in, not all of them identifying as journalists. Defining journalism as more of a practice than an occupation also allows us to say that not everything done by people who call themselves journalists qualifies as journalism.

So what is the core of the practice? First, it is finding things out and telling people about them. Assange qualifies, and then some.

Second, it is commitment to factual accuracy and verification. Again, Assange qualifies. Nobody has claimed that the material he released was not what he said it was.

Third, it is, at least sometimes, editing, curating and verifying. Assange has done some of this, and organised for more to be done through his relationship with media partners. Barbara Gunnell, the UK journalist, wrote in Griffith Review how WikiLeaks provided an edited movie — “Collateral Murder” — as part of its initial Iraqi related release and the raw footage, so viewers could assess the integrity of the editing.

Lastly, and certainly implied if ethical standards are to be taken as part of the accreditation of journalism, there is an ideology, or a vibe — a belief in transparency, and in the democratic effect of sharing information.

WikiLeaks qualifies. While one might argue about the extent to which it adequately fulfills its responsibilities (just as one might with any mainstream media organisation), 
WikiLeaks has a clearly described agenda of working for good governance. The mission outlined on its website is that leaking calls governments and corporations to account, and that “public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions forces them to consider the ethical implications of their actions … Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most effective method of promoting good governance.”

Most serious journalists would have no trouble signing up to that mission, even if they want to argue that WikiLeaks has failed in areas of ethical responsibility (and which media outlet has not?). Continue reading “Walkley Awards decide Julian Assange is a journalist”

Federal

Nov 17, 2011

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