While the Australian political elites are desperate to do Washington’s bidding even without too much pressure – “how high would you like us to jump, sir? More wars in the Middle East? Why, of course, we’ve always enjoyed killing Arabs” – there’s finally some movement and support from important quarters.
Australia’s political leaders are risking long-term damage to the nation’s freedom of speech by accusing WikiLeaks and its founder of breaking the law by releasing US diplomatic cables on the whistleblower website, a human rights lawyer says.
Last Thursday, Prime Minister Julia Gillard condemned the leaking of 250,000 classified documents on the Wikileaks website as “illegal” and “grossly irresponsible”, while Attorney-General Robert McCLelland on Saturday promised to support any law enforcement measures taken against founder Julian Assange.
Australian Lawyers for Human Rights president Stephen Keim says accusations of criminal law breaches levelled at Assange undermine free speech principles.
“Although the Attorney-General is entitled to disagree with – even protest – the actions taken, it is a particularly objectionable misuse of political hyperbole in these circumstances to make sweeping allegations of illegality,” Mr Keim said.
“It involves a degree of intimidation that is likely to (and appears intended to) deter others from engaging in serious political debate on the possibility that it may offend those who hold the machinery of power.”
Mr Keim criticised the Australian government’s defence of Swedish prosecutors and its lack of protest over “what may well be misuse of sexual assault allegations by Swedish prosecutors for political reasons”.
Instead, he said, “the government should be insisting that prosecutorial actions taken against Australian citizens should meet the highest standards of probity and objectivity”.
The human rights lawyer said the government should not even consider cancelling Assange’s passport.
“It seems entirely inappropriate that statutory powers of such seriousness should be contemplated because a person has placed political material of an embarrassing nature into the public sphere,” Mr Keim said.
“The government’s resort to hyperbole and heavy-handed use of state power detracts from its political message,” he said.
“If the government wishes to argue that it is better for the Australian public to be kept ignorant of secret war advocacy by some allies and potentially illegal espionage by others, it would be better to make that case directly.”
Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown said today the government needs to make it very clear that Julian Assange has the same rights as any other Australian who is abroad and that his rights will be looked after by the Australian authorities.
“Australian citizenships should be respected and he should be reassured that his citizenship is safe,” Senator Brown said.
“Mr Assange has come across a great ream of documents which throw some light on US foreign policy. It is important that we know what drives governments to make decisions.”
“Mr Assange has had no criminal conviction and there is a lot of political conjecture and juggling of claims against him.”
“If this material had gone straight to one of the Australian newspapers they would have published it. The press works off leaks like this all the time.”
“I understand that WikiLeaks goes through a process before releasing any documents to help ensure that such releases do not put lives in danger,” Senator Brown said. “I urge WikiLeaks to be diligent in that.”
Murdoch’s Australian coverage has been almost comical in approach. The journalist asked Assange’s lawyer if his client was a terrorist?
The lawyer representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has attacked the Australian government for failing to offer help to his client.
And Mr Assange’s London-based lawyer, Mark Stephens, has said sex charges against Mr Assange amounted to a “show trial”.
As the fallout from the release of diplomatic cables spreads to Australia, Mr Stephens questioned the worth of an Australian passport.
“He has had no assistance or offers of assistance … by the Australian authorities in Sweden, or London or America,” Mr Stephens told ABC radio.
“One has to question what the value of an Australian passport is, whether you agree with what he has done or not.”
“One would think that having an Australian passport you would get some assistance but thus far, I have to say, the high commissions and embassies have been shutting their doors to Julian Assange.”
Asked if his client had broken any laws by releasing thousands of confidential diplomatic cables, Mr Stephens said “not that I can see”.
He dismissed suggestions that his client was a terrorist.
“Julian Assange is giving out useful information, journalists, investigative journalists, have been doing that for years,” he said.
“What he got, unasked for, he didn’t hack for it, was the electronic equivalent of a brown envelope. Quality investigative journalists have been working with brown envelopes and material given to them to hold our governments to account, to ascertain whether what they are doing is what we want them to be doing.
“If Julian Assange is a criminal than every national newspaper that has published exactly the same stories is also a criminal. Are we going to lock up editors from all over the planet? I don’t think so.”