For the first time in more than a decade there’s cause for hope. The tortuous chain of cause and effect that saw Australian publisher Julian Assange go from global news sensation to a freezing cell in a London prison may at last be ended if the Biden administration decides to make a principled break with the fateful decisions of President Donald Trump.
Trump’s decision in 2019 to prosecute Assange for espionage placed Assange at risk of a maximum prison sentence of 175 years. It crossed a line that President Obama’s administration had been unwilling to step over—not through any love of WikiLeaks but for the simple reason that accusing publishers of espionage ran headfirst into the principle of press freedom enshrined in America’s First Amendment. The ‘New York Times’ problem, they called it: if Assange goes to jail then so should the editor of the New York Times. The leaks at the centre of the case led to dozens of public interest stories in the Times and other publications around the world, including this one.
In January 2021 there was an unexpected turn: a London Magistrate’s Court decided to reject Trump’s request to extradite Assange from the United Kingdom to the United States. The election result and the court’s decision provide the circuit breaker this terrible miscarriage of justice so desperately needs.
Trump, and his accomplices in the Department of Justice and Department of State, are gone. On their way out the door they filed an appeal in the UK courts—a matter of routine, according to most observers—and there the matter rests.
President Biden’s pick for US attorney general, Merrick Garland, told the Senate judiciary committee of his commitment to the protection of rights, to fair treatment of the press, and to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. It is impossible to reconcile any of these priorities with the continuation of the former president’s dangerous conflation of journalism and espionage.
President Trump relished open hostility to the media, treating the press as ‘the enemy of the people’. He had an ally in Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who showed zero interest in stepping up to help an Australian citizen in trouble. But now, far from Canberra, the ground is shifting.
In the United States, moves are afoot across civil society, the press and the legal profession to bring this dangerous episode to a close. Organisations with global reach, including Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch, have recognised the threat of this prosecution and stepped up a lobbying campaign to ensure the Biden administration drops the case. There is renewed energy around the world, from the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance—Assange’s union here in Australia—to the remarkable work the US-based Courage Foundation is doing to help focus the mind of the incoming attorney general. Now is the time to raise our voices, to demand lawmakers here urge their American counterparts to let Julian Assange walk free and reunite with his family after more than ten years.
‘Transparency in government remains a vital national interest in a democracy, Garland has said. On 29 March his justice department is due to publish more details on its grounds for appeal. That’s how long we have to ensure that these words mean something.