Whistling in the wind: is there anybody out there?
AS MOST Australians contemplate a traditional Christmas of over-indulgence and recuperation, we should spare a thought for one of our less fortunate compatriots. He lives in exile under house arrest, awaiting one last hopeful court appeal. He faces a perilous future should that appeal fail.
He will then be extradited to a third country, not to face criminal charges but merely for questioning about allegations of sexual assault which under Australian law would not likely result in any criminal charges.
There he will be held on remand and incommunicado. In this state of ”temporary surrender” he will be liable to further extradition to a fourth country, believed to have already instituted legal process relating to activities unconnected with the allegations of sexual assault.
The accused man’s prospects of a fair trial in that fourth country are negligible. Its Vice-President has labelled him a ”high-tech terrorist”.
The current front-runner to challenge the incumbent President in next year’s election has branded him an ”enemy combatant” who should be murdered or subject to ”extraordinary rendition” – that is, hunted down, kidnapped and sent to a secret torture centre beyond the reach of that country’s laws.
At home in Australia, the official response has been less extreme but still hostile.
The Prime Minister and the former attorney-general both publicly alleged that he had broken the law, but have been unable to tell us which law.
They have refused to retract this allegation even in the face of advice from the Australian Federal Police that no offence under Australian law has been committed.
Ignoring personal pleas from the accused man and his mother, the Australian government has refused to intervene, on his behalf, with the foreign governments pursuing him, despite friendly relations with those governments.
The activities for which the accused man has been condemned before trial, or even the laying of any charges, have earned him the Sydney Peace Prize, the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism in Australia, the Martha Gelhorn Prize for Journalism, in the US, and Liberty Victoria’s Voltaire Award for Free Speech. The readers of both Time and Le Monde voted him person of the year for 2010.
Contrary to dire predictions that the accused man’s activities would imperil the safety of nations and individuals, no such consequences have been reported. All he really did was help shine a light into the dark recesses of international relations, exposing the uncomfortable if unremarkable truth behind the outward expressions of diplomacy.
The accused man is, of course, Julian Assange, undoubtedly the most famous Australian in the world today. The price of that fame has been the Kafkaesque fate described above. It is easy to shrug and say this fate was inevitable, that he had it coming to him for daring, Prometheus-like, to take on forces far greater than himself. It is far harder to pause and question this complacent response.
Imagine instead that he was the citizen of a country not obsessed with security at the expense of liberty; a country mature and self-confident enough to distinguish its own interests from those of its allies; a country whose political leadership could tell politics from policies; a country not riven by culture wars and marred by character assassination; whose citizenry could take offence at obvious injustice to one of its own and do something about it.
Imagine that Assange was a citizen of that country and then ask yourself whether his fate was inevitable.
The Christians among us might care to pray for such a country this coming Christmas. The irreligious might hope that Santa delivers justice on Christmas Eve. But we all need to stop, between the turkey and the plum pudding, to reflect on Assange’s fate and what it says about us and our country. What responsibility do we as Australians bear? These are uncomfortable questions, likely to disturb our usual summer torpor. However, we need to ask them. Merry Christmas.
Michael Pearce, SC, is a Melbourne lawyer and former president of Liberty Victoria. He is a signatory, with dozens of others, to an open letter to Kevin Rudd about the plight of Julian Assange.
The letter and petition can be found here.
This article first appeared on The Age, December 19 2011