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Opinion

Why Julian Assange must go free

Canberra's commitment to US efforts to contain China make an ideal bargaining chip

| Australia
Julian Assange leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London on Jan 13: the Assange case is about freedom of speech.   © Reuters

Greg Barns is an Australian lawyer and adviser to the Australian Assange Campaign.

Visiting Julian Assange in London's Belmarsh Prison last month for the first time in six months, his partner Stella Morris said the WikiLeaks founder looked much thinner than last time she saw him.

After more than a year in maximum security -- on top of the seven years he was confined to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London -- the 47-year-old Australian will be back in court today as the hearing on whether to grant a request to extradite him to the U.S. resumes.

The charges Assange faces relate to the 2010 and 2011 publication of classified materials revealing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unless the U.S. can be convinced to drop its pursuit of Assange, the case looks set to drag on into next year. If convicted, Assange could spend the rest of his life in prison.

There are sound reasons why U.S. allies such as Australia and the U.K. should make every effort to convince the U.S. to abandon its pursuit of Assange. One of the most important is that his case sets a dangerous precedent in allowing nations to extend the reach of domestic criminal and espionage laws to any person -- anywhere in the world -- who publishes material which one nation deems embarrassing or against its interests.

Not only is Assange not an American citizen, he has never even set foot on U.S. territory. His alleged "crime" was to publish in 2010 and 2011 -- in conjunction global news media outlets including the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel -- voluminous material shedding light on the conduct of the U.S. and its allies in various theaters of war. That included footage from a U.S. Apache helicopter that showed the killing of 11 people in Iraq in 2007, including two Reuters personnel. After secret grand jury hearings over the course of several years, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to charge Assange with 18 separate offenses carrying a 170-year maximum sentence.

Stella Morris and sons leave Belmarsh Prison after visiting her partner and their father, Julian Assange, in London on Aug. 25   © PA/AP

Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Car has accurately summarized just what a dangerous precedent the Assange case sets. "Whatever Assange did in 2010-2011 it was not espionage, and he's not a U.S. citizen. His actions took place outside the U.S.," Carr wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year. "Under this precedent anyone, anywhere, who publishes anything the U.S. state brands secret could be prosecuted under the U.S. Espionage Act and offered to the maw of its notoriously cruel justice system."

The Assange case is also about freedom of speech. If Assange is successfully extradited and prosecuted, a new benchmark will have been set. Other journalists, publishers and citizens, not just in the U.S. but anywhere across the globe, who expose wrongdoing by the military and state security agencies, will be much easier to prosecute. That Assange's case represents two significant dangers to democratic freedoms should have Washington's friends in Canberra and London lobbying hard to stop it in its tracks. It's especially puzzling that Australian and the U.K. would continue to support the U.S. case against Assange after both countries so strongly criticized Hong Kong' new security laws over many of the same issues found in the case against Assange.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the new Hong Kong security law "does not provide legal or judicial safeguards on such cases, and [he is] also concerned about the extraterritorial reach of certain provisions." Even U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the most vocal advocates for prosecuting Assange, has savaged the Hong Kong law as an attack "on freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, as well as the rule of law." How one squares away this rhetoric and viewpoints about the evils of attacks on freedom of speech and the extraterritorial reach of laws with the preparedness to pursue Assange is far from clear.

There is, however, another way to resolve the case against Assange. For the Australian government in particular, the Assange case represents a test of its much vaunted credentials as an ally of the U.S. No other nation in the Asia Pacific region is currently more joined to Washington's hip, especially when it comes to the U.S.-led effort to try to contain China's rise.

But in doing so, Australia is risking permanent damage to its already stretched friendship China, its most important economic and trading partner. Precisely because Australia is risking so much in its efforts to promote U.S. hegemony in Asia, the conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has the leverage to demand that Washington quietly abandon its extradition request and allow Assange to be reunited with Morris, his fiance, and their two young children.

There is precedent here. In 2007 the Australian government successfully negotiated the return of one of its citizens, David Hicks, who had been captured by the U.S. in Afghanistan and detained in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Whatever one thinks of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, he does not deserve to face an effective death sentence for telling the truth about how one nation conducts itself in war. In fact we should all wish there were more people like him.

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