Jun 012023

April 8 – 14, 2023  |  No. 444


Jo Dyer
The political persecution of Julian Assange

Even as Stephen Smith paid a concerned visit to Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison this week, the new high commissioner to Britain said firmly that Australia was not “lobbying for a particular outcome”. Concerned Australians might ask, “Why the hell not?”

Assange is now entering his fifth year of incarceration in London, and Labor’s bland mantra, “It is time for this matter to be brought to a conclusion”, is wearing thin. Greens senator David Shoebridge late last month asked Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong point blank if the prime minister had used the March 14 AUKUS meeting to push for Assange’s release. Wong retreated behind the tired excuse of timid governments, citing ongoing legal processes in which executive governments can’t interfere. The Albanese government’s lack of interference is striking. Despite the prime minister’s assertions that “enough is enough”, former independent senator Rex Patrick’s freedom of information requests reveal that no official correspondence relating to the WikiLeaks founder has been exchanged between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian embassy in Washington.

Assange is involved in “very many legal processes”, Wong has said, and “we are not able to alter the judicial processes of another country”. But no need to worry – in all the relevant countries, she assures us, “the rule of law applies”.

The supposedly sacrosanct rule of law in these “very many legal processes” warrants further investigation. While Wong may be confident about the rule of law in the relevant countries, meticulous research in award-winning Italian investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi’s Secret Power: WikiLeaks and its Enemies and former United Nations special rapporteur against torture Nils Melzer’s The Trial of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution suggests that the rule of law in Sweden, Ecuador, Britain and the United States has been contorted to meet the political agendas of these countries’ authorities in relation to Assange: an unwavering commitment to assist the US in prosecuting him for the crime of journalism. At every stage of these “many legal processes”, perplexing decisions have been taken.

First, it is worth noting the singular success of Assange’s enemies in making the story all about him. Rather than the war crimes of major powers and the impunity with which they commit them, it is allegations about Assange’s sexual behaviour that have attracted headlines. The media has alternated between outraged insistence that WikiLeaks’ disclosures recklessly endangered the lives of the innocent, and distasteful reporting on Assange’s personal hygiene. Within a few months of WikiLeaks’ release in 2010 of Collateral Murder, footage taken from a US Apache helicopter of an attack on civilians in Baghdad leaked by US soldier Chelsea Manning, Assange was being transformed from a courageous if eccentric anti-authoritarian freedom fighter, to a capricious, shifty, potential rapist on the run.

For more than a decade, carefully cultivated narratives have been determining his fate.

“The persecution of Julian Assange is and always has been political, the law just a tool to enact it. The US government pressed their spurious charges against Assange to exact revenge on him for revealing their darkest secrets, and as a lesson to anyone else inclined to do the same.”

Assange’s legal peril begins with a Swedish investigation into accusations of rape and sexual misconduct, proceeded against the wishes of the alleged victims. Two young women who had sex with Assange when he visited Stockholm sought advice from the police on August 20, 2010, on how to require him to take an HIV test after disputes about condom use left them anxious about STDs. Before their initial interviews were completed, an arrest warrant was issued for Assange for raping one of them and molesting the other. The issuing of the warrant was immediately leaked to the press, where Assange first learnt of it. It was soon revoked. Sweden’s chief prosecutor closed the rape investigation as soon as she’d read the police reports summarising the women’s statements.

The reopening of the investigation into rape days later is the first of many oddities in Sweden’s legal response. The European arrest warrant (EAW) that became the basis for the Swedish extradition process was issued while the investigation was still at a preliminary stage. And Sweden simultaneously activated Interpol, which issued a red notice for Assange’s arrest even though charges had not been laid.

Assange swiftly grew suspicious of these anomalies and sought assurances that he would not be extradited to the US if he returned for questioning. Swedish authorities would provide no guarantees. They also repeatedly refused to interview him remotely by video conference or onsite in London under applicable European mutual legal assistance agreements. As Melzer notes, this dual refusal enabled Sweden to maintain an artificial impasse over the next six years.

The British Commonwealth Prosecution Service has a role in this stalemate. The CPS, which was then headed by the current Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, advised the Swedish Prosecution Authority as early as January 2011 that Assange’s case was “not … being dealt with as just another extradition request”. It was CPS’s advice that “it would not be prudent” for Swedish authorities to interview Assange in Britain, and the organisation displayed throughout an unusual and inordinate interest in how the Swedish authorities chose to handle a Swedish case that involved no British nationals.

The British judge assigned to the Swedish extradition case is married to a Conservative lord and former chairman of the Defence select committee responsible for overseeing the British military, with ties to organisations and individuals exposed by WikiLeaks. Justice Emma Arbuthnot quickly affirmed Assange’s extradition to Sweden despite the EAW having been issued by a prosecutor rather than the required “judicial authority”.

When Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, British officials responded with fury. Then foreign secretary William Hague threatened to storm the embassy to seize Assange, writing to the Ecuadorians, “We very much hope not to get to this point.” The response from his counterpart, Ricardo Patiño, was unequivocal: “The colonial times are over.” Retreating from an unprecedented violation of diplomatic immunity, the British instead began a siege of the embassy, surrounding it with Metropolitan Police officers who kept a close and expensive eye on outgoing cars and bulging bags.

Money was no object, the CPS explained to the Swedes when, as years elapsed, they floated revoking the EAW. Later the CPS would misrepresent the extent of their interaction with the Swedes and unlawfully destroy their correspondence.

Despite the challenges of the modest embassy suddenly having a permanent, high-profile and extremely controversial house guest, Ecuador officials managed Assange’s stay well for the first five years. A change in government in May 2017 was Assange’s undoing. The new president, Lenín Moreno, made rapprochement with the US a primary aim, and he was instructed in an open letter from US congress to “first resolve a significant challenge created by your predecessor, Rafael Correa – the status of Julian Assange”.

Moreno moved to resolve it quickly. After isolating Assange within the embassy by depriving him of internet usage and severely restricting his visitors, a “special protocol” was developed to govern the rules of his asylum, a document of such complexity that it was nigh impossible to avoid transgressing.

Without any due process under any rule of law – no right to be heard, no right to legal counsel, no right to appeal to a judicial body – the Ecuadorian ambassador informed Assange on the morning of April 11, 2019, that his citizenship and asylum had been revoked and he was to leave within the hour. British police dragged him out in handcuffs and the US submitted an arrest warrant on the same day.

Three months prior to this, the embassy had confiscated Assange’s shaving kit, leaving him looking wild and unkempt for his perp walk. A more consequential humiliation was the illegal surveillance to which he was permanently subjected, first by the Spanish private security company employed by the embassy, UC Global – whose alleged spying on Assange spawned a criminal case in Spain and a civil suit in the US – and then by an Ecuadorian security company, Promsecurity, who allegedly recorded his meetings with lawyers and photographed the documents they brought with them.

From a legal perspective, Melzer notes that the permanent surveillance of Assange’s conversations with his lawyers and doctors renders any proceedings based on information gathered in this manner arbitrary. “If UC Global co-operated with an American intelligence service, this would fatally affect not only the Anglo-American extradition proceedings, but also the espionage charges of the US Department of Justice on which the extradition request is based,” he writes. The trial of Daniel Ellsberg failed because his psychiatrist’s records were stolen by investigators. How much more egregious is the behaviour of the Americans and Ecuadorians here?

Convicted of no crime, Assange is now approaching the fourth anniversary of his incarceration in Belmarsh, “England’s Guantanamo”. He’s often held in solitary confinement, ostensibly for health reasons, but where his health suffers terribly. His computer and the internet are withheld so he can’t liaise appropriately with lawyers. He wasn’t allowed out for the birth of his child or the funeral of his close friend. He remained locked up throughout the pandemic and following a stroke. Doctors say the conditions are killing him.


Wading through the details of Assange’s persecution can leave one feeling like an unhinged conspiracy theorist. What was it with the paralysis of the Swedish investigation? Why didn’t the British courts deal with an obvious perception of bias in Justice Arbuthnot? Was UC Global really spying for the CIA without Ecuadorian knowledge and, if so, why did the ubiquitous surveillance continue under their new team? What value should we give the Americans’ carefully qualified assurance they won’t subject Assange to “special administrative measures”?

Dismissed at the time as narcissistic paranoia, many of Assange’s fears have proved founded. The vast array of legal anomalies, oddities and outrages perpetrated by democratic governments in their pursuit of one man is jaw-dropping, leaving us to conclude that these four countries conspired to deliver Julian Assange to the Americans, with Australia a sometimes meek, sometimes gleeful, but generally disinterested bystander.

The persecution of Julian Assange has always been political, and the law just a tool to enact it. The US government pressed their spurious charges against Assange to exact revenge on him for revealing their darkest secrets, and as a lesson to anyone else inclined to do the same. It was former US secretary of state and CIA director Mike Pompeo who decided to aggressively pursue the case against Assange; President Joe Biden must drop it.

The US seeks to keep from the public the way they really play their politics, and fight their wars, and we have recently upended our foreign policy to throw our lot in with them. We’ve committed to paying incomprehensibly large sums to buy their submarines to bolster their own military strategy. They owe us and now is the time to call in the favour.  Assange needs to be released immediately, through negotiation by an Albanese administration currently in possession of a lot of political capital.

Let him come quietly home. The Australian people are sickened at the extended maltreatment of a man of courage, who is dying in jail for the crime of promoting transparency, accountability and truth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2023 as “The Assange outrages”.

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