Since the announcement of the details of the AUKUS alliance in March, a shift in authority over this nation is apparently underway, which began with the Albanese government agreeing to a $368 billion nuclear-powered submarine deal with the US, despite congressional approval still pending.
These revelations, and compounding details to have since emerged, have led commentators to quip that the increasing control that Washington wields over Canberra makes it futile for our ministers to petition their US counterparts in regard to dropping the extradition case against Julian Assange.
However, at last weekend’s AUSMIN conference, an annual meeting of US and Australian foreign and defence ministers, this somewhat facetious take on the power the White House exercises over our government in terms of the WikiLeaks founder’s case, has been revealed as true.
As US secretary of state Antony Blinken made clear during the 29 July AUSMIN joint press conference in Brisbane, the US Department of Justice has repeatedly confirmed that the “serious criminal conduct” Assange is charged with must be pursued.
And while he understands that Australians have concerns about the case, he reiterated the claim that Assange put “human lives at great risk”, despite this having long been denied, and he called on United States “friends” here to understand his nation’s “sensitivities” when it comes to this matter.
SMH journalist Matthew Knott, who co-authored that masthead’s Red Alert article series, which former Australian PM Paul Keating condemned as warmongering, put the question concerning the Australian publisher and journalist to the US and Australian ministers gathered at the presser.
Assange is currently being detained in London’s Belmarsh prison, where he’s been held in prolonged isolation since April 2019, in relation to a US extradition request put to the UK government, which involves an 18 criminal charge indictment carrying a joint maximum penalty of 175 years.
The US government wants to prosecute Assange in relation to his having published thousands of classified US military and diplomatic cables leaked to him by US army officer Chelsea Manning in 2010. And Washington has charged Assange, a noncitizen, with multiple espionage offences.
Knott quizzed US state secretary Blinken as to why Assange continues to be held in the British prison awaiting extradition, whilst Manning, who was initially detained in 2010, over having leaked the files, and convicted in 2013, has since been freed by then outgoing US president Barack Obama in 2017.
Yet, our government has done next to nothing to secure the release of the Townsville-born son, since he was removed from London’s Ecuadorian Embassy and taken into UK custody four years ago, with the overwhelming majority of this time consisting of him being remanded on behalf of the US.
Indeed, on arrest, then Australian PM Scott Morrison stated that the award-winning journalist would receive “no special treatment”, whilst current leader Anthony Albanese has expressed his position, which is “enough is enough”: a vague reference to bringing the legal proceedings to an end.
No change in position
“Look, as a general matter policy, we don’t really comment on extradition matters, extradition proceedings,” Blinken laid down the White House law on how it deals with legal matters, which it would seem from recent developments will be of increasing importance in this country.
“And so, I really would refer you to our Department of Justice for any questions about the status of the criminal case, whether it’s with regard to Mr Assange or the other person in question,” the US secretary of state added, in reference to Julian and Manning.
However, Blinken wants local “friends” to understand that our politicians have raised the matter of Assange with their US counterparts, and whilst acknowledging local “sensitivities” about the case, he’d like Australians to understand his nation’s “concerns about this matter”.
“Our Department of Justice has already said repeatedly, publicly, is this, Mr Assange was charged with very serious criminal conduct in the United States in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country,” the secretary added.
Blinken then asserted that Assange had posed a “very serious harm” to US national security, which benefited their adversaries and put people at risk of physical harm and detention, despite multiple witnesses having stressed that the WikiLeaks’ founder did redact names to avert resulting fallout.
“I say that only because, just as we understand sensitivities here, it’s important that our friends understand sensitivities in the United States,” Blinken said in concluding his assessment of the Assange case.
The limits have been reached
Australian foreign minister Penny Wong did interject before her US counterpart delivered his response to the Assange question, which, because of the nature of Washington’s relationship with Canberra, is the final word on the matter.
“I have answered this question… on a number of occasions,” Wong said, as she’d recently done this on 4 July when she told ABC Radio that whilst she’s raised the Assange matter with US and UK officials at the highest level, the case was ultimately up to their legal systems to decide.
“So, there are limits to what Australia can do. And I know people believe that somehow, we can fix this,” Wong said on-air early last month. “Actually, there are limits to what Australia can do.”
But on Saturday, Wong added three points to the matter. The first was that the Albanese government has made clear publicly, and privately in diplomatic interactions, that it considers the case “has dragged on too long” and it should be brought to conclusion.
The foreign minister also stressed the limits to how far her government can interfere in the legal systems of its closest allies, and she added that her administration understands that the Australian citizen is continuing to appeal his extradition, and our nation will provide consular support.
Follow the leader
The UK courts originally denied Assange’s extradition to the United States in January 2021, because it recognised that Assange wouldn’t survive the extreme incarceration regime, known as SAMS, that the US would subject him to, as his mental health was so poor at the time.
Yet, despite this finding, and Julian’s health only having worsened, the UK High Court went on to accept assurances from the US that it wouldn’t subject the Australian to its harshest prison conditions, unless he did something else to warrant it, so extradition was granted.
Then UK home secretary Priti Patel officially greenlighted Assange’s extradition in June 2022, and that nation’s highest court once again denied him respite on appeal in June this year, which leaves the Australian, whose health is continuing to deteriorate, with one last-chance to appeal.
And as PM Albanese has embarked our nation on a brave new course, where Australia is increasingly relegated to a US subimperial power, the placating and petitioning of our government to step in and exert some of its power to save Assange increasingly appears like a futile action.