Assange’s treatment says a lot about us

Michael Pearce
THE AGE

An open letter to Kevin Rudd

As most Australians contemplate a traditional Christmas of over-indulgence and recuperation, we should spare a thought for one of our less fortunate compatriots.

He lives in exile under house arrest, awaiting one last hopeful court appeal. He faces a perilous future should that appeal fail.

Headliner … Julian Assange is arguably the most famous Australian in the world today. Photo: AP

He will then be extradited to a third country, merely for questioning about allegations of sexual assault which under Australian law would not likely result in any criminal charges.

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There he will be held on remand and incommunicado, and will be liable to further extradition to a fourth country, believed to have already instituted legal process relating to activities unconnected with the allegations of sexual assault. His prospects of a fair trial in that fourth country are negligible. Its vice-president has labelled him a ”high-tech terrorist”. The current front-runner to challenge the incumbent president in next year’s election has branded him an ”enemy combatant” who should be murdered.

In Australia, the official response has been less extreme but still hostile. The Prime Minister and the then attorney-general both alleged he had broken the law, but have been unable to tell us which law. They have refused to retract this allegation even in the face of advice from the Australian Federal Police that no offence under Australian law has been committed.

The Australian government has refused to intervene on his behalf with the foreign governments pursuing him, despite friendly relations with those governments. The activities in question have earned him the Sydney Peace Prize, the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in Australia, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the US and Liberty Victoria’s Voltaire Award for Free Speech. The readers of both Time and Le Monde voted him person of the year for 2010.

Contrary to dire predictions that those activities would imperil the safety of nations, all they did was shine a light into the dark recesses of international relations, exposing the uncomfortable truth behind the outward expressions of diplomacy.

The accused man is, of course, Julian Assange, probably the most famous Australian in the world today. The price of that fame has been the Kafkaesque fate described above. It is easy to shrug and say he had it coming for daring, Prometheus-like, to take on forces far greater than himself. It is far harder to pause and question this complacent response.

Imagine instead that he was the citizen of a country not obsessed with security at the expense of liberty; a country mature and self-confident enough to distinguish its own interests from those of its allies; a country whose political leadership could tell politics from policies; a country not riven by culture wars and marred by character assassination; whose citizenry could take offence at obvious injustice to one of its own and do something about it.

The Christians among us might care to pray for such a country this Christmas. But we need to stop to reflect on Assange’s fate and what it says about us and our country. What responsibility do we as Australians bear? These are uncomfortable questions, likely to disturb our usual summer torpor. But we need to ask them. Merry Christmas.

Michael Pearce, SC, is a former president of Liberty Victoria. He is one of 74 signatories to an open letter to Kevin Rudd published today about the plight of Julian Assange.

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