By Stuart Rees
The fate of Julian Assange has become a test case of democracy, of the rule of law, of basic human rights let alone of concern for a common humanity. The big question is will justice prevail.
On March 4 in Sydney University’s Great Hall, sixteen notable human rights campaigners addressed a Belmarsh Tribunal concerning the persecution and prosecution of imprisoned journalist, publisher and whistleblower Julian Assange.
The Sydney tribunal, named to remind the audience of the UK security prison Belmarsh in which Julian has been held for four years, followed initiatives to speak truth to power begun by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre during the Vietnam war.
Tribunal speakers described the treatment of Assange far removed from any notion of humanity. Instead, the Sydney audience heard of cruelty, revenge, lying, spying, deceit and collusion among powerful politicians, spies, lawyers and government officials in Washington and London, their outrageous behaviour marinated for years by cowardice in Canberra.
Former US CIA officer John Kiriakou identified the shamefaced lying which led to his imprisonment for whistleblowing and warned that if Julian should ever appear before a US court, he should not expect justice.
Dean Yates, former chief of Reuters press agency in Baghdad, spoke of lying by the Pentagon when he tried to discover the fate of two of his staff. Only in 2010 was truth revealed, when Julian Assange showed the video of Yates’ colleagues, along with nine other Iraqi citizens being slaughtered three years earlier by gunfire from a U.S. Apache helicopter. “But to cover that event,” said Yates, “Generals lied to me, killers were never held to account.”
Assange’s skills and courage in displaying the collateral murder video, and other Wikileaks revelations about killings by US forces, should have prompted gratitude from supporters of democracy, truth telling and the rule of law. Instead, Assange was perceived as such a threat to US government, that powerful operators concocted ways to stifle, demonise and kill him.
‘Concocted ways’ included legal deceit in Washington and, when Assange appeared in London courts to resist the case for his extradition to the US, British judges made arbitrary, arrogant decisions. There was no fairness in their treatment of Assange. Judges and prosecutors showed that claims about due process in law were relics of a bygone age.
I felt sad that powerful people could behave like bullies’ intent on cruelty and deceit, yet the Tribunal gave signs of hope. From across the party divide, Australian Federal politicians spoke in unison about injustice to Julian and the need to set him free. Josh Wilson for Labour, Bridget Archer for the Liberals, David Shoebridge for the Greens and Monique Ryan for the Teals made passionate appeals for a long overdue touch of justice.
The highly respected veteran journalist Kerry O’Brien recalled the prestigious Walkley award to Julian for his courageous, novel and high standard journalism. O’Brien warned that the extradition and conviction of Assange would end freedom of speech, end freedom in journalism.
But journalists’ record in this case has not been impressive. With notable exceptions, their silence has contributed to the scapegoating of Assange. They have not campaigned for this man’s freedom. Gutsy advocacy from journalists who benefitted from Julian Assange telling the world how governments operate, could have become an irresistible force. That did not happen.
Sadness ended Sydney’s Belmarsh Tribunal. Sadness about the cruelty of politicians and the cowardice of journalists, sadness about governments’ deceit and their fascination with punishing someone convicted of nothing.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the academic imprisoned for two years in a Tehran jail on fake charges of espionage, spoke slowly but forcefully of imprisonment’s brutal effects on body and mind. Grateful for the massive efforts of Australian authorities to set her free, she wondered why the same influence could not be summoned for Julian?
A crescendo of appeals, which sounded like ultimatums to Prime Minister Albanese to speak openly, loudly, repeatedly that President Biden should end proceedings against a brave and worthy citizen, came from Stella Morris, Julian’s partner, the mother of his two young sons. Her sadness filled the hall. So too her reminder that Albanese had concluded, “enough is enough”.
The Australian Prime Minister has been correct in one crucial respect. In several so-called democracies, an outrageous cruelty has lasted for far too long.
Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Akl Quds) Peace Prize and author of the new book “Cruelty or Humanity”. A human rights activist, poet, novelist, and Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
Feature image: The Belmarsh Assange Tribunal, Sydney 4th of March 2023. Photo credit: Screenshot/Youtube