The Guardian • Issue #1971

Assange: when the process is the punishment

Australian Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange spent his fiftieth birthday in a London-based high-security prison earlier this month following eleven long years of brutal containment for leaking highly disturbing war crimes committed by US military personnel against civilians in the Middle East. Countless groups have condemned Assange’s imprisonment across the world on both the left and the right for a multitude of reasons, including press freedom, freedom of speech, human rights, the right to a fair trial, disproportionate punishment, internet freedom and government censorship of issues of public concern.


Regardless of the fact that Assange has still not been convicted, he continues to be held in Belmarsh Prison under inhumane conditions, which have caused considerable damage to his mental health. Concerns over risks of suicide have led to a decision to reject his extradition to the US while on trial; however, the US has recently appealed against this on the grounds that once convicted, he would serve out his time in Australia.

However, Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, has expressed that the “process is the punishment,” as they prolong his suffering in a supermax prison where he has little opportunity to see his family. While the trial is continuously dragged out, Assange is held in torture-like isolation conditions with rare access to see his fiancée and children, in a situation completely disproportionate to his alleged crimes. Even UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, who has worked with Assange and investigated his case closely, believes that house arrest is highest level of containment that would be humane.


Melzer proclaims that the purpose of the isolation is to further silence Assange and prevent him from exercising his freedoms. Additionally of concern, the appeal contains a clause that would allow the US to keep Assange in a US prison depending on “diplomatic assurances.” Many other critics have suggested that the harsh and disproportionate treatment of Assange is to make an example of him, to threaten other investigative journalists who are tempted to publicise crimes of the US and other Western powers, especially those revealed by courageous whistleblowers.

Anonymous ex-Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) whistleblower Witness K has also faced prosecution following his leak of Australia’s interference in Timor-Leste’s affairs over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. Australian Defence Force (ADF) lawyer and whistleblower David McBride has been charged disproportionately for revealing war crimes of Australian SAS soldiers in Afghanistan. Several Australian journalists’ have had their homes raided for holding information that could cause “harm to Australia’s interests.” It comes as no surprise that these interests do not refer to the interests of the Australian public but to Australia’s political elite’s imperialist ambitions and cooperation with US imperialist ambitions.


For this reason, the work of whistleblowers and investigative journalists should not be overshadowed by false and misleading accusations but instead maintain focus on the reasons they have put their lives on the line. Assange’s online document archive, Wikileaks, provided important and reprehensible information to the public, such as the 2007 leaked video “Collateral Murder” in Iraq, in which a group of journalists and other civilians were murdered by airstrike by US military, in a shockingly nonchalant fashion. It also revealed the mapping of over 100,000 deaths in attacks by insurgents, including 15,000 that had not been previously published. Without public knowledge of the brutality of these forces, the average person in the West remains unaware of their nation’s participation in the suffering of innocent people abroad. They also remain ignorant of the terrible environmental effects of the military and the disingenuous reasons for attacking these regions.

McBride has uncovered gruelling reports of Australian SAS soldiers committing sanctioned massacres on civilians, slitting the throats of children and dumping their bodies, pressuring other soldiers to execute Afghan prisoners to ‘get their first kill in’ and more horrific acts which have been covered up systematically. This is where public outrage should really lie.


Stan Grant, Senior Fellow for the military defence-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), recently conducted a cringe-worthy interview in which he boasted to China Global Television Network (CGTN) journalist, Liu Xin about exceptional media freedom in the West compared with China. He ignorantly grandstanded about Western organisations being free to criticise their government, to raise uncomfortable issues and being free to protest, unlike China. Unsurprisingly, the ABC News YouTube video of the interview was overflowing with comments such as, “Press freedom? What about Julian Assange? [You are] just deplorable.” and “Free Assange – a real journo that deserves better – how can Australia speak about press freedom with any credibility while he is still locked behind bars?”

Liu however, did not focus on this, but on the fact that China has no interest in creating division, but to build bridges of understanding to different sectors of society, and behave responsibly in the international community, with the main focus always being on developing countries. She remarked that the Chinese people are happy and proud under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and have no interest in being part of any “club”.


It is curious that while the Australian public have generally expressed more anti-China views in the past, the majority of those commenting on Grant and Lui’s exchange remarked on the Chinese journalist’s integrity, intelligence and composure in the face of Grant’s regurgitation of ‘five-eyes propaganda on a state-funded channel’, frustrated with the lack of discussion about Assange’s situation.

Due to Assange’s case, an exceptional circumstance has arisen, where a group of Australian Senators and Members of Parliaments (MPs) ranging from Greens, to Independent, to Labor, and even one Liberal Party member have campaigned together to call on US President Biden to drop Assange’s unprecedented espionage charges, to release him, and to allow him to return to Australia. While this group has vastly contrasting political perspectives, they all agree that the treatment of Assange is a breach of citizen rights, threatens journalists worldwide and corrupts Australia’s alliance with the US.


Meanwhile, the silence from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other leading Liberal Party members is deafening. George Christensen, the one outspoken Liberal Party member who supports Assange’s release, recently announced his resignation as MP after expressing frustrations with the party becoming increasingly dictatorial, intolerant of criticism, and introspective, therefore becoming less democratic. While this is somewhat unsurprising, it is shameful that Morrison would allow an unconvicted Australian citizen to be buried in the US justice system, and demonstrates his allegiance to the US government over his own people.

With the exposure of Australia’s participation in war crimes, the inhumane treatment of Assange, and the unfettering lack of criticism towards the US on this issue, it is hopeful that attitudes in Australia could continue to shift towards a more critical view of the imperialist core and Australia’s human rights abuses.

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