Assange ‘free to return to Australia’ when legal challenges end

Australian PM says Julian Assange is free to return home if the US fails in its extradition bid.

A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holds a placard at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, on January 4, 2021 [Henry Nicholls/ Reuters]

Julian Assange is “free to return home” to Australia if a US extradition bid fails in the British courts, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday, as Australian legislators urged Washington to drop its espionage case against the WikiLeaks founder.

Morrison’s comments came a day after a British judge blocked the extradition request by the United States, where Assange is wanted on criminal charges including breaking espionage laws, saying his mental health problems meant he would be at risk of suicide.

Lawyers for the US government said they would appeal the decision.

This means the case could go all the way to the British Supreme Court, a process that could take up to three years, according to campaigners.

“Well, the justice system is making its way and we’re not a party to that,” Morrison told local radio station 2GB. “And like any Australian, they’re offered consular support and should, you know, the appeal fail, obviously he would be able to return to Australia like any other Australian.

“So, yes, it’s just a straightforward process of the legal system in the UK working its way through.”

Assange is accused by the US of 18 offences during the administration of former President Barack Obama relating to the release by WikiLeaks of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables, which the US says put lives at risk.

In a mixed ruling for Assange and his supporters, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser on Monday rejected defence arguments that the 49-year-old Australian faces a politically-motivated prosecution in the US that rides roughshod over free-speech protections.

But she said Assange’s precarious mental health would likely deteriorate further under the conditions of “near-total isolation” he would face if jailed in the US.

“I find that the mental condition of Mr Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” the judge said.

Following the decision, Andrew Wilkie and George Christensen, co-chairs of the Bring Julian Assange Home Parliamentary Group, which comprises more than 20 Australian legislators, called on the Australian government to press the US to end its pursuit of Assange.

“This is a shameful chapter of history which shows London and Canberra care more about kowtowing to Washington than they do about protecting an Australian citizen, who has never been found guilty of any offence,” Wilkie said in a statement.

With a US appeal looming, Morrison “must pick up the phone and call US President Donald Trump and US President-elect Joe Biden to ask them to drop the extradition bid”, Wilkie said. The Australian leader must also demand British authorities release Assange from a maximum-security London prison, where he has been held for more than 18 months, Wilkie added.

Christensen, a backbencher in the governing conservative Liberal-National coalition, also urged Trump to pardon Assange and “ensure the Deep State and a potential Biden Administration cannot pursue further action against him”.

“Furthermore the Australian Government should ensure that when he is returned to Australia, there is no avenue for an extradition from his home country to the United States.”

The opposition Labor Party, meanwhile, welcomed the British judge’s decision, calling on the “Morrison government to do what it can to draw a line under this matter and encourage the US government to bring this matter to a close”.

In a statement on behalf of the opposition, legislator Mark Dreyfus noted Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked the documents to Assange, had her sentence commuted, and added: “Given his ill health, it is now time for this long drawn out case against Julian Assange to be brought to an end”.

Australia’s Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance, the journalists’ union of which Assange is a member, also said the Australian government must use its “good relationship with the US” to expedite Assange’s safe passage to Australia.

WikiLeaks came to prominence when it published a US military video in 2010 showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters staff. It then released thousands of secret classified files and diplomatic cables.

Assange’s legal saga began soon afterwards when Sweden sought his extradition from the United Kingdom over allegations of sex crimes. When he lost that case in 2012, he fled to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he spent seven years.

When he was finally dragged out in April 2019, he was jailed for breaching British bail conditions although the Swedish case against him had been dropped. A month later, the Trump administration, which had already indicted Assange on one count of computer misuse, filed 17 new espionage charges against Assange – charges that carry a maximum of 175 years in prison.

In June of that same year, it formally asked the United Kingdom to extradite him.

The move marked a reversal for the US, as the Obama administration had decided not to prosecute Assange over concerns about the precedent the case could set for free speech and journalists.

Mexico on Monday offered political asylum to Assange.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said: “Assange is a journalist and deserves a chance, I am in favour of pardoning him … We’ll give him protection.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies