Assange cannot be the new David Hicks; abandoned to his fate

Cameron Stewart writes a perceptive piece in the Australian on the troubles for the Australian government. It either stands up for its citizen, Julian Assange, or is made to simply follow Washington’s dictates. The evidence thus far is not good:

Australia faces potentially the greatest political fallout of any non-American nation from the WikiLeaks controversy.

Not only must the Gillard government contend with the embarrassing contents of the leaked cables, which have already diminished the standing of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, but it also faces an acute political dilemma if WikiLeaks’ Australian founder Julian Assange is eventually extradited to the US.

Mr Assange’s Australian passport means that Canberra cannot be divorced from his long-term fate, both legally and politically.

The federal government is already in the unusual position of having to provide full diplomatic assistance to the arrested Mr Assange at the same time as it has slammed his actions in releasing thousands of classified documents on his website.

Imagine how much more difficult this will become if – as many suspect – Mr Assange ends up in the US facing espionage-related charges.

Lawyers for Mr Assange fear that this is the ultimate motive behind his arrest on a Swedish extradition warrant in relation to alleged sex offences.

If he is extradited to Sweden, they believe that the Americans will request his extradition to the US.

Yet Washington is struggling to identify precisely what case it could bring against Mr Assange.

US Attorney-General Eric Holder is examining whether Mr Assange could be charged with a crime under the 1917 Espionage Act which prohibits the transmission of defence-related documents.

But this 1917 act was never designed for a case such as this and there has been no espionage-related prosecution in US history that remotely resembles the WikiLeaks case.

The absence of a clear-cut legal case against Mr Assange means that any attempt to prosecute him will reek of a political agenda.

This will further elevate his status as a cult hero and a symbol for free speech, and will place political pressure on Australia to ensure that his rights are not trampled.

In many ways, Mr Assange’s case could have parallels to that of convicted terrorist David Hicks, who won sympathy in Australia because of the perception that he had been unfairly treated by the Bush administration.

Mr Assange has hardly trained with al-Qa’ida and one would expect that he would have widespread popular support in Australia if he is seen to be the victim of US politics.

Suddenly the Gillard government would have a cult hero on its hands and a political headache.

Australia would be faced with the choice of robustly defending one of its own citizens and therefore undermining its relations with Washington, or effectively abandoning Mr Assange to his fate and taking a hit in the opinion polls.

It is a bleak choice and one which may prove to be far more difficult and damaging for Australia than the contents of the cables themselves.