Just two weeks after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly rebuked any possibility of resolving the Australian journalist and Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the US from Britain to face espionage charges, the US Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy has publicly indicated there could be a resolution to the case.
Assange is languishing in solitary confinement in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh Prison, awaiting extradition to the US on 17 charges of espionage, and one charge of computer misuse, over the Wikileaks publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents and other materials in 2010.
The Guardian, New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, and Der Spiegel, which jointly published the documents were never charged. US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning stole the classified diplomatic documents and military files, that Wikileaks later published. Manning had been treated much more leniently when former US President Barack Obama commuted her 35 year sentence to seven years, which allowed her to be released in 2017.
Julian Assange has spent the last 5 years in Belmarsh Prison, and for 7 years before that inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, in fear of what is actually happening to him today. Former US President Obama declined to prosecute Assange due to the implications it would have on the prosecution of other journalists for espionage. However, the Trump administration issued an indictment against Assange in 2019, which has been continued by the Biden administration, until now.
It has been since disclosed that the CIA, through a Spanish contractor, spied on Assange while in the Ecuadorian Embassy, and under former head of the CIA Mike Pompeo, plans had actually been made to assassinate Assange.
The US has until now resisted backroom Australian persuasion and requests to resolve the Assange case. The softening US position on Assange appears to be in response to the step up in US and UK access to Australian military facilities under the AUKUS agreement.
Blinken said in Brisbane that Assange had been charged with very serious criminal conduct and risked great harm to US national security. On this, Blinken asked that Australians see the US perspective on this case. However, this position put Australian Prime Minister Anthong Albanese, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong under immense pressure from their own Australian Labor Party rank and file.
Blinken’s statements in Brisbane led to criticisms of Albanese and Wong by MPs Julian Hill, Andrew Wilkie and Bridget Archer. With the ALP National Conference on in the coming week, the Assange issue is one that Albanese and Wong would like to avoid.
Pre-empting resistance to the idea of any plea-deal, ALP MP Julian Hill said no one would think any less of Assange, if he struck a plea deal. Fortunately the US State Department appears to be astute enough to see the Assange issue could potentially become a major thorn in the US-Australian partnership. Leading to the comments made by the US envoy recently, there could be some form of David Hicks type plea-deal done with the US Justice Department, to see Assange on his way home to Australia.
This may involve a downgrading of charges against Assange in return for a guilty plea, for a short prison term which could be served in an Australian prison.
The Assange exit plan from the US point of view needs to be in a face-saving manner, where this episode can be passed by as quickly as possible. Thus, the David Hicks approach, where Hicks was not allowed to speak publicly for a number of years after his release from prison, after spending sometime in an Australian prison, may be the most acceptable.
Prime Minister Albanese is scheduled to travel to Washington to meet with President Biden in October. There is now a sign that a compromise can be agreed upon and announced, which would reflect positively upon Albanese, with the trappings of the White House in the background. This would still mean Assange would have to travel to the US for a court hearing, but sometime after a plea-deal in court he would be on his way back to Australia.
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