A cross-party group of Australian politicians has called on the United States to drop an espionage case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and allow the Australian citizen to return home.
In an open letter to U.S. Attorney-General Merrick Garland, 48 members of Parliament and the Senate, including 13 from the ruling Labor Party, said the case against Mr. Assange would “set a dangerous precedent for all global citizens, journalists, publishers, media organizations and the freedom of the press.”
“It would also be needlessly damaging for the U.S. as a world leader on freedom of expression and the rule of law,” the letter continued, urging Mr. Garland to stop efforts to extradite Mr. Assange from the United Kingdom, where he has been “effectively incarcerated for well over a decade in one form or another.”
Mr. Assange co-founded WikiLeaks in 2006. The organization came to prominence four years later when it published hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, in association with international media including The Guardian and The New York Times.
That same year, Mr. Assange was accused of two cases of sexual assault in Sweden. After almost two years of fighting extradition from the U.K., where he was then living, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he would spend the next seven years.
During that period, Mr. Assange was interviewed by Swedish prosecutors but refused to surrender to the authorities, and by 2019 the statute of limitations had been reached on most of the allegations against him. That year, however, Ecuador revoked his asylum and allowed British police to enter the embassy.
In April, 2019, Mr. Assange was arrested on a U.S. extradition request in relation to the 2010 publications. He was accused of conspiring with U.S. military whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of espionage in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years. Her sentence was commuted by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2017.
Once lauded for exposing government wrongdoing around the world and helping create a new culture of online whistle-blowing, Mr. Assange is today a far more controversial figure. While he was never convicted, the Swedish sexual assault cases began a slide from grace that was hastened by his increasingly erratic public behaviour. This came to a head around the 2016 U.S. election, when Mr. Assange seemed to be assisting Donald Trump, spreading conspiracy theories and publishing materials apparently acquired by Kremlin-backed hackers.
Despite his apparent fondness for Mr. Trump, the U.S. Justice Department secretly indicted Mr. Assange for conspiring with Ms. Manning in 2018, with the charges revealed the following year. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration had explored prosecuting Mr. Assange “but decided not to, in part because of fears of creating a precedent that could chill traditional journalism.”
Since 2019, Mr. Assange has been fighting extradition to the U.S., while supporters, press groups and politicians have lobbied the White House to drop the case. In Australia, this has included Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who last year said, “My position is clear and has been made clear to the U.S. administration that it is time that this matter be brought to a close.”
Last month, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong said she had personally lobbied the British and U.S. governments to drop the case, but added, “There are limits to what diplomacy can achieve.”
In their letter Tuesday, Australian lawmakers warned that Mr. Assange’s prosecution would not only damage press freedom but also relations between Canberra and Washington.
“If the extradition request is approved, Australians will witness the deportation of one of our citizens from one AUKUS partner to another – our closest strategic ally – with Mr. Assange facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison,” they said, referring to the recently formalized security deal between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.
The letter, published on the fourth anniversary of Mr. Assange’s arrest, coincides with a similar push by British MPs, mostly opposition lawmakers. They also urged Mr. Garland to “take a stance to uphold the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and drop the extradition proceedings to allow Mr. Assange to return home to Australia.”
According to The Intercept, a U.S. publication, Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Rashida Tlaib are also gathering signatures for a letter calling on the Justice Department to drop the case.
The U.S. is currently dealing with the fallout from another set of sensitive leaks, this time of Pentagon documents related to the war in Ukraine. They were not published by WikiLeaks but apparently shared initially on Discord, a chat platform popular with gamers, before being posted widely to social media.