USA/Australia: Diplomatic negotiations present a savvy political opportunity to bring the case against Julian Assange to a close
As calls to #FreeAssange continue to grow around the world, diplomatic negotiations also appear to be heating up between the United States (US) and Australia over the fate of WikiLeaks publisher and Australian citizen Julian Assange. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges the two states to commit to finding a solution to the case as an urgent priority, preventing a situation of extradition and allowing for Assange’s immediate release with no further time in prison.
With Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese set to be hosted by US President Joe Biden for an official state visit to Washington DC from October 23 to 26, the ante has been upped in the ongoing diplomatic negotiations between the US and Australia regarding the case of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange. This visit could mark the last chance to prevent a lengthy period of imprisonment for Assange, whose fate hangs in the balance with his possible extradition only a matter of weeks or months away, meaning efforts on his behalf are now more crucial than ever.
RSF has been intensely engaged in public and private advocacy urging both governments to prioritize finding a diplomatic solution to the case involving no further time in prison for Assange. RSF has written letters to both sides ahead of recent high level meetings in San Diego and Brisbane, and engaged in a week of targeted advocacy with the US government and Congress in Washington DC in July, urging the US to act in the interest of journalism and press freedom by finding a political solution that prevents extradition and ensures Assange will spend no further time in prison. Albanese’s state visit to Washington DC presents a savvy opportunity for precisely that solution.
“Now is a more crucial time than ever with Julian Assange’s extradition possibly looming in just a matter of weeks. If the US and Australian governments mean what they say when it comes to press freedom, they simply cannot ignore the elephant in the room during Prime Minister Albanese’s state visit to Washington DC. We urge both governments to commit to reaching a diplomatic solution as an urgent priority before the visit, preventing a situation of extradition and allowing for Assange’s release from prison without further delay.
Since the electoral victory of the Australian Labour Party in May 2022, the Albanese administration has been slowly and steadily advocating on behalf of Assange, with the Prime Minister and other officials often repeating the refrain that Assange’s case has gone on for too long and needs to be resolved. Albanese’s commitment to finding a solution to the case marks a sharp departure from the hands-off approach of his predecessor, former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had stated Assange would be “free to return home” after the matter had made its way through the justice system.
It was recently acknowledged that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong discussed Assange’s case when the two met for Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Brisbane in July. Blinken’s comments in a press conference afterwards, emphasizing that Assange was accused of “very serious criminal conduct,” drew public criticism in Australia for his seemingly hardline approach, although he had not said anything that differed from the US government’s longstanding position on the case. Significantly – perhaps in reaction to the backlash – two weeks later, US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy made comments to the press indicating “there absolutely could be a resolution to the case,” such as through a plea deal.
At the same time, Australian public opinion is heavily in Assange’s favor, with the cry to #FreeAssange growing across the country. Calls from Australian MPs for Assange’s release have gained traction, while journalists’ groups such as the MEAA (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance) continue to speak out in solidarity. The pressure is growing for Albanese to secure Assange’s release, and he would almost certainly face a strong backlash if he returned home from his state visit having failed to do so.
Assange’s fate may indeed depend on the outcome of the diplomatic negotiations. With only one final step remaining in the UK courts – a hearing by a panel of two judges yet to be scheduled, dubbed “Day X” – he has few legal means left to prevent his extradition to the US. If extradited, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison cumulatively for the 18 counts against him. The bulk of this case – 17 counts – rests on Espionage Act charges, which itself is facing calls from reform in the US Congress to address its lack of a public interest defense and other deficiencies. The remaining Computer Fraud and Abuse Act charge – the initial charge brought against Assange before the Espionage Act charges were added in May 2019 – would carry a potential maximum sentence of only five years.
For his part, Assange has already spent nearly four and a half years in London’s Belmarsh prison, where he has been held on remand since April 2019. Assange has been arbitrarily deprived of his liberty through various means since December 2010, including 10 days of isolation at Wandsworth Prison, 550 days of house arrest, and seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he sought refuge out of fear of extradition to the US.
In the run-up to Prime Minister Albanese’s visit to Washington DC, RSF will continue to mobilize its entire international network in support of the #FreeAssange campaign. RSF campaigns for Assange’s release as a global priority because of the alarming implications his case has for journalism and press freedom. RSF defends Assange because of his contributions to journalism through the publication by WikiLeaks of leaked classified documents that informed public interest reporting around the world, exposing war crimes and human rights violations that have never been prosecuted.
The US and UK are respectively ranked 45th and 26th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index. Australia is ranked 27th.