Opinion: What awaits Assange in Australia

Damond Isiaka
9 Min Read

Editor’s Note: Latika Bourke is an Australian author and journalist and Writer-at-Large for The Nightly based in the UK. She is the former international reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Her book, “From India with Love,” was published in 2015. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more CNN Opinion.



CNN
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Julian Assange is no martyr, but the Trump administration’s continued pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder ended up making him one — in the eyes of many Australians.

Latika Bourke

In his home country, Assange had long been a darling of human rights lawyers, hard-left and far-right figures who took up his cause, mostly motivated by an anti-deep-state mentality.

Seen by some as an attention-seeking narcissist who thought himself above the law and continually fell out with those around him, Assange was a difficult figure for ordinary people to like — despite the various celebrities, including Hollywood actor Pamela Anderson, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and British rap star M.I.A. who appeared hypnotized by a charm few others saw.

But since his 2019 arrest at the behest of the Trump administration and imprisonment at the UK’s maximum security Belmarsh prison — after he was unceremoniously evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he spent seven years evading extradition to Sweden to face questioning over sex crime allegations — attitudes towards Assange have softened.

recent poll showed Australian support for freeing Assange as high as 71%.

This is partly because the Trump administration’s pursuit was seen as overreach.

While a British court ruled that Assange “went beyond the mere encouragement” of a whistleblower when he offered to coach former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in how to crack a password and cover her online tracks, the charges leveled against Assange relating to the subsequent publication of hundreds of thousands of sensitive cables amounted to a maximum 175 years in jail if found guilty.

The second factor was time.

Take for instance the emotional shift from Australian Nationals Senator Matt Canavan. He hails from the conservative right faction of Australian politics and is one of those MPs who has recently taken up Assange’s cause. This wasn’t always the case.

“Enough was enough, I think everyone’s come to that view,” Canavan told me.

A mural of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in Sydney's central business district. Assange, who was released from prison in the UK on June 24, has long been a polarizing figure in his native Australia.

Assange, now 52, has spent the last two decades dodging extradition orders to avoid being sent to the US, where he fears permanent incarceration or even an early death. He had resisted this because pleading guilty would have required his physical presence in the US, where he fears life in prison.

In the end, this week’s agreement to have him plead guilty in Saipan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory in the Pacific and en route to Australia from London, was a neat solution.

Assange pleaded guilty, under the plea agreed with the US, after having spent five years in solitary confinement.

In the view of Canavan, “he’s served his time.”

Canavan said his own journey on Assange began when he was a university student and blindly supported then-US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq because of his right-leaning politics.

Assange’s WikiLeaks disclosures put Western human intelligence sources at risk by the way they were dumped on the internet unredacted. But the earliest disclosures exposed shocking battlefield incidents, including US aircrew mowing down Iraqi civilians from a helicopter. Two Reuters journalists were also killed in the incident.

Canavan regrets supporting that war and is grateful to WikiLeaks for its disclosures.

“I was gung-ho and made to look like a fool because they lied about weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

“I was a cheerleader for that war and I’m happy to admit that I was wrong because we are still living with the consequences of entering that war.”

Another concern that united many across the Australian political divide was the idea that the US, or any country, could charge one of their citizens with breaching laws that were not violated on US soil.

As Canavan and many of Assange’s supporters see it, the WikiLeaks founder will plead guilty only under duress.

But it’s a deal that many of Assange’s supporters have urged him to take, including Australian Labor MP Julian Hill who has long argued that no one should judge Assange if he chose a plea deal in exchange for life with his children and wife, Stella Assange, who has indefatigably championed his cause.

Hill told me that when he first took up Assange’s case, it was “certainly not trendy for those up who spoke up on principle,” but that “over the years, public awareness and opinion gradually turned.”

Last year, Hill brokered a meeting with a group of cross-party MPs and US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.

“We made clear, very respectfully, the strength of feeling and growing community sentiment around the need to resolve this and the unnecessary complication that it was causing to the Australia-US relationship,” he said.

Then there was the combination of US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Australia’s newly elected Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Albanese’s left-wing base is uncomfortable with increasing weapons exchanges with the US, including AUKUS, the program to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

And so Albanese felt pressure from his MPs, supporters, the media and prominent social figures in Australia, to secure Assange’s freedom in a way a right-wing leader, like his predecessor Liberal party Prime Minister Scott Morrison, never did.

And he has delivered.

“The PM deserves enormous credit for his determination and persistence over many years and judgement in how he’s handled the matter,” Hill said, a sentiment echoed by Canavan.

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    Assange’s case has always attracted publicity as his supporters have continued to plead for cash from the public to fund their global travel and media campaigns.

    That showed no sign of abating on Tuesday when Stella Assange claimed that they needed to stump up half a million dollars to pay for the charter flight home.

    Assange hasn’t been seen from or heard in public for years and there will be huge media interest in hearing from him directly.

    He is now heading to Canberra where he’ll be given a hero’s welcome by some, including his family and hardline supporters.

    But Prime Minister Albanese would be wise to remember that support for ending a long-running case, doesn’t necessarily amount to hometown affection for a man long accused of supporting anti-Western interests.

    This article has been updated.

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