Once upon a time, Julian Assange was a brown-haired youth living in Melbourne suburbia. In many ways, he was an average 20-year-old: mistrustful of authority, convinced of his own brilliance, clever but not wise. He spent a lot of time lying around in a messy house and staying up late on his computer.
These computing activities, however, were not average at all. In 1991, when most people were playing around on Commodore 64s and Ataris, Assange – using the moniker “Mendax” (from Horace’s phrase splendide mendax, “nobly untruthful”) – was part of a small group of hackers breaking into, among other places, multinational telecom company Nortel’s master terminal in Melbourne. Assange wasn’t there to damage the system: he later described the pleasure of electronic infiltration as like “standing in a cathedral at midnight” – a kind of forbidden, essentially harmless delight. But one night, wandering in Nortel’s system, he was discovered by an administrator.
A month later, the Australian Federal Police charged Assange with 31 counts of hacking and related crimes. It took three years for his case to come to court. When it did, he pleaded guilty to 25 charges, six were dropped, and he faced a 10-year prison sentence. To an anxious young man, it must have seemed like the end of the world.
Yet, at his sentencing, the judge made a statement. “There is just no evidence,” he said, “that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to – what’s the expression? – surf through these various computers.” Assange, by then in his early 20s, was ordered to pay a small fine, and left the courtroom a free man.
It is no longer 1991, the man in the dock is no longer dark-haired, and it seems unlikely, should Julian Assange ever again come to trial for his computing activities, that his actions will be described as those of simple “intelligent inquisitiveness”.
Until earlier this year, Assange had spent almost seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, defying an extradition order to Sweden, where he was under investigation for four sexual assault charges involving two women. But on April 11, Ecuador abruptly revoked his asylum, and on the same day, UK police arrested him; a strange, spectral figure, long-bearded and dressed in black, like Gandalf or Voldemort. He was immediately imprisoned in Belmarsh, a maximum-security prison in south-east London, to serve a 50-week sentence for skipping bail over his Swedish extradition.
As soon as he left the embassy, the United States served its own extradition order, involving 17 charges of espionage and one of computer hacking, with a combined potential sentence of 175 years.
Having served his breach of bail sentence, Assange is now due in a British court next February to contest the US extradition order. He has, by some measures, spent the past decade fighting against this moment, but it has arrived nonetheless.
This means that everyone who either loves or hates Julian Assange is gearing up. His supporters are fighting a battle on many fronts. They claim that the case against him is based on political offences, which are specifically excluded from the extradition treaty; that he’s been spied on by the CIA, which might invalidate any case against him; that the extradition request relies on the contested principle of extra-territoriality, which claims that a person can be sent to any country which alleges a crime, even if the crime itself wasn’t committed on that country’s soil.
This principle in particular “sets a spine-chilling precedent”, says former foreign minister Bob Carr. “It would mean that any Australian who offended a foreign security service could be subject to that service grabbing them by the throat and hauling them off to a country they may never have visited to put them on trial.”
There are other claims, too, being made by both sides: of journalistic rights; of diplomatic machinations and political vendettas. There are also questions about the fundamental workings of democracy, and our rights as citizens to know about the decisions of those ruling in our name. There is no doubt these questions matter. But when it comes to Julian Assange personally, there is another, far more brutal question to be answered. Does anyone actually care?
For years now, much of the mainstream media and most of the public has been suffering from Assange-fatigue. All those years in the embassy, all those claims of innocence for myriad alleged crimes, all that outrage about being unfairly treated by the courts, the government, the media, the world. The truth or otherwise of Assange’s story – even the basic facts of his narrative – have been blurred by time and repetition. Familiarity, as it so often does, has bred contempt.
But not for everybody. Assange’s father, John Shipton, recently relocated to the UK to support his 48-year-old son. “He’s lost a lot of weight,” he explains quietly over the phone from London after visiting him at Belmarsh. “Still fighting, still mentally vigorous, but the effects of torture are there.”
He’s referring to the report of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who has examined Assange in person and says he “shows all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma”. The New York Times reported in late November that more than 60 physicians have signed a letter saying Assange is suffering from mental as well physical deterioration.
“I am not sure, actually, how he is,” confesses Shipton. “He’s very kind to me – like all my children, he doesn’t complain to me. But I don’t know if he’s being looked after. I do know he’s in a maximum-security prison, in his cell many hours a day, on his own.”
[Julian’s]’s lost a lot of weight. Still fighting, still mentally vigorous, but the effects of torture are there.
Julian Assange’s father, John Shipton
Shipton visits his son as often as possible, along with an unlikely cast of characters: the Venn diagram of Assange support must be the only one on earth that includes the intersection of artist Ai Weiwei, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and actor Pamela Anderson. In Australia, his support base includes journalists Phillip Adams and Mark Davis, filmmaker James Ricketson, Sydney University emeritus professor Stuart Rees, and politicians as strikingly disparate as Andrew Wilkie, George Christensen, Barnaby Joyce and Richard Di Natale.
It also includes Mary Kostakidis. The former newsreader and face of SBS lives in a rigorously chic apartment over the water at inner Sydney’s Dawes Point. The 65-year-old is one of only a handful of Australians to have seen Assange since his imprisonment; she has travelled, at her own expense, on her own time, to see him; and recently she committed herself to giving “100 per cent of my attention and resources” to his defence.
She’s been a supporter since 2006, long before he was famous. “It began for me because I became fascinated at this young, idealistic Australian, very tech-savvy, who developed a way for whistleblowers to upload data anonymously,” she says. “All journalists are interested in how to protect their sources, so I was intrigued. I also recognised that it would result in him being in danger, simply by doing that.”
She has met him in person three times – most recently in October at Belmarsh. “Most people, in the end, choose to lead safe, comfortable lives,” she explains. “We’re not interested in putting ourselves in the line of fire. Yet we owe a great debt to those people who do.”
Love him or hate him or simply don’t care about him, one of the most complicated things about Julian Assange is, well, Julian Assange. Over the years, people have called him a paranoid conspiracy theorist, a narcissist and (recently, in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald) “just so f…ing egotistical, it was a joke”. He’s been described as having an almost otherworldly vagueness – perhaps a genuine ignorance of – the ordinary details of life and human interaction.
Andrew O’Hagan, the respected British novelist who spent months with Assange in 2011 trying (and failing) to ghost-write his autobiography, and who continued to support him in the Ecuadorian embassy for some years, describes in a famous 2014 essay for the London Review of Books how “I made lunch every day [during the abortive book project] and he’d eat it, often with his hands, and then lick the plate. In all that time he didn’t once take his dirty plate to the sink. That doesn’t make him like Josef Mengele, but, you know, life is life.” Of course, he points out, “Nobody is simply one thing: history was full of messy characters exercising their rudeness and eating with their hands while changing the world.”
But in the end, O’Hagan (who was contacted for this feature and explained he has “nothing to add … I’ve been out of touch with this story for a long while”) concludes that “[Assange] runs on a high-octane belief in his own rectitude and wisdom, only to find later that other people had their own views – of what is sound journalism or agreeable sex – and the idea that he might be complicit in his own mess baffles him … He is thin-skinned, conspiratorial, untruthful, narcissistic, and he thinks he owns the material he conduits.”
On the other side of the coin are people like Kostakidis. “He’s the complete opposite of a narcissist,” she says. When she spent three days in the embassy with him in 2013, “he struck me as someone who treated his small team with enormous respect”, and also “someone who is oblivious to anything that’s not in his head. He’s a man with a mission: principled, very single-minded, very serious about the project. I’m reminded of something that [climate activist] Greta Thunberg said recently, talking about her Asperger’s. She said, ‘I’m different, but sometimes it’s good to be different.’ People with Asperger’s who are highly intelligent have an incredible ability to focus. You can see that in Greta: highly articulate, unafraid, very courageous. Julian is very similar.”
Though there are no reports of a formal diagnosis, many people have wondered if Asperger’s is, in fact, part of Assange’s complexity. Does Kostakidis think so? “Oh, possibly. His aspirations are altogether different [from most people’s]. He wants to contribute to bringing about a more just society. I found no problem with his personality whatsoever. As for personal oddness, I don’t mind oddness. Highly intelligent people are often unusual. How many ‘normal’ people have changed the world?”
Assange certainly lives in a complicated world, and not only his personality, but his history – personal, professional and increasingly legal – is complicated, too. But if we were to simplify, it would be fair to say that at base, three major issues have dogged the past decade of his life, and are still fundamentally relevant today. These issues matter because, arguably, Assange’s case no longer depends on classified revelations or the granular interpretation of international law. It depends on reputation – in other words, the way people who have never met him perceive him. People like us. And the way we see Assange is filtered through a triple prism: of rape, redactions and Russia.
The rape accusations against Assange take us back to the very beginning of his story. Not quite to the brown-haired youth (he reportedly went suddenly grey in his mid-20s after a custody battle over his son), but to his roots with WikiLeaks, an organisation he founded in 2006 as what he called “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking”. These days, other organisations exist that serve this purpose, but WikiLeaks – and Assange – were first.
Nonetheless, the site didn’t attract much attention until 2010, when young American army private Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning downloaded an enormous cache of classified information, including half a million military records from Iraq and Afghanistan and 250,000 diplomatic cables from the US State Department. The first big release from this material, in April 2010 – a video entitled Collateral Murder – showed US soldiers in an Apache helicopter killing several civilians, including two Reuters journalists, on the streets of Baghdad. It gave WikiLeaks instant global gravitas, and made Assange an international sensation.
Just four months later, in August 2010, Assange went to Sweden, where he had sex with two women. Both later went to police together to see if he could be compelled to take an HIV test. As a result, the police drew up a criminal complaint, containing four offences: rape and three counts of sexual molestation and illegal coercion. These included claims of forcible restraint, consummating sex without using a condom despite knowing this was a prerequisite for consent; and consummating sex with a woman while she was, “due to sleep, in a helpless state”. In Swedish law, varying degrees of rape exist: that faced by Assange was the least serious. He was questioned by police, then released; the investigation was dropped, then reviewed and re-opened on the request of the women’s lawyer.
The whole point was to smear him, to make people believe he’s a narcissistic rapist who refuses to answer these allegations.
Assange supporter Mary Kostakidis
Assange, however, was never re-interviewed. He left Sweden and has never returned. The Swedes issued a European Arrest Warrant to force him back; he fought it for two years through three British courts, including the country’s highest, the Supreme Court. All three ruled that he must return to Sweden. Instead, he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. His supporters believe this was justified because if he’d returned to Sweden he would have been extradited immediately to the US to face charges over the Manning revelations. They believe the rape case was a cover to force him into US hands. They also believe that it was used to deliberately destroy his reputation. “The whole point was to smear him,” says Kostakidis, “to make people believe he’s a narcissistic rapist who refuses to answer these allegations.”
Others, however, say the idea of such a conspiracy is ridiculous. Quite apart from the fact that no extradition request to Sweden was ever made, no one can be extradited from Sweden without the approval of the country’s Supreme Court, so any conspiracy would need the complicity of at least three Swedish Supreme Court justices. UK law, moreover, would have required Britain as well as Sweden to approve his onward extradition to the US, thus making it more complex, rather than less, for the US to secure him via Sweden. Assange was, after all, already in the UK, the US’s primary partner in intelligence and diplomatic exchange. If the US wanted him, why not simply
request his extradition from there?
The rest of the sexual assault allegations are a mire of claim and counter-claim. On one side, supporters point out that no charges have ever been laid against Assange, and that it took years for the Swedish prosecutor to agree to interview him via proxy in the Ecuadorian embassy. Opponents respond that the Swedes had the right to run their case according to their laws, which include laying charges at the end of the investigative process rather than the beginning, and interviewing people in person. The UK and Sweden colluded to keep the case alive, say supporters. Assange delayed, deflected and denied normal legal process, say detractors.
In 2015, the statute of limitations on the allegations of molestation and coercion expired, and they were discontinued. The rape case was also dropped in 2017, because, according to Swedish prosecutors, Assange’s position in the embassy meant that “all prospects of pursuing the investigation under present circumstances are exhausted”.
This might have looked like a victory for Assange, who claimed his situation was a human rights violation. Some – even some of his supporters – doubted this. “The women in question have human rights, too, and need resolution,” wrote Jemima Khan, who stood bail for Assange during one of the English trials, but later broke with him over her involvement in a documentary about WikiLeaks. “Assange’s noble cause and his wish to avoid a US court does not trump their right to be heard in a Swedish court.”
After Assange was removed from the embassy, the rape case was reopened by the Swedes at the request of the second woman’s lawyer. But it was dropped in November by Swedish prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson, who said “the evidence has weakened considerably due to the long period of time that has elapsed since the events in question”. Elisabeth Massi Fritz, a lawyer for the woman in question, also made a statement, saying her client felt the decision was “unjust”. “My client has fought hard for many years and she has stood up for her rights even though it often felt like the whole world was against her,” Fritz said. “Today there are no words to describe how difficult this nine-year-long process has been for her.”
Fritz went on to say that she and her client would discuss whether to request a review of the decision. But at this point, we are left with only one incontrovertible fact. Whatever happened during those long-ago events in Sweden, and whatever you think of his behaviour since, Assange has long since lost the presumption of innocence the judicial process depends on. Whatever he faces next, he will do so carrying the inescapable reputational damage of the Swedish cases.
Speaking of reputational damage brings us to the second issue facing Assange. Redactions: the removal of people’s identifying details from information before it’s published, in order to protect them.
Redactions occur regularly in journalism, and clearly involve a whole series of value judgments. Whose identity needs to be protected? What level of risk or harm is material? How valuable is individual privacy? In the past decade, Assange’s attitude to redaction has varied dramatically. At times, he’s redacted material personally. Australian journalist Mark Davis was with him during the preparation of WikiLeaks’ original 2010 releases. “It is irrefutable that Julian redacted the most dangerous material from the Afghan war logs,” he says. “I was with him the evening he did so; I’m aware that he redacted 10,000 names – that’s not an inconsequential number. It took him a whole day and all night and into the next morning.”
But at other times, WikiLeaks has published great swathes of people’s private information that has seemed irrelevant to the public’s right to know. In the Saudi diplomatic cables releases of 2016, 124 medical files were released, describing patients with psychiatric conditions, seriously ill children and refugees. Other documents have revealed the identities of teenage rape victims in Saudi Arabia, anti-government activists in Syria, and dissident academics in China. They’ve also revealed people’s credit card details, personal email accounts, social security numbers, and voicemails from their children at the zoo.
Many people find Assange’s attitude to redactions uncomfortable. In conversation with The New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian, who has written about Assange many times since 2010, Assange admitted some leaks risked hurting innocent people, “collateral damage, if you will”, but that he could not weigh the importance of every detail in every document. “In any case, we have to understand the reality that privacy is dead.”
Military and government sources, moreover, have often claimed that WikiLeaks’ revelations have led to innocent deaths. Given the nature of the material, this seems prima facie reasonable. But, in fact, no public evidence of such deaths has ever been produced. In the US in 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years’ prison for disclosing classified information. (In 2017, her sentence was commuted by then US president Barack Obama. She was jailed again in March this year for refusing to testify to a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.) During Manning’s original sentencing, Brigadier-General Robert Carr, the senior counter-intelligence officer in charge of the investigation into WikiLeaks’ impacts, admitted to the court that he couldn’t name a single person who’d lost their life. “I don’t have a specific example,” he said.
The American result was echoed in Australia, where a declassified report from the Department of Defence concluded in 2010 that it was “unlikely” that Australian or allied forces were directly endangered by the leaks. WikiLeaks’ disclosures, says this report, did not contain “any significant details about operational incidents involving Australians beyond that already publicly released … No Afghans with whom Australia has worked are identifiable, other than those who work with Australia openly, such as officials and community figures.” In conclusion, “The investigation found that the leaked documents are unlikely to have an adverse impact on Australia’s national interests.”
Assange’s supporters also point to WikiLeaks’ positive impacts. Its disclosures have played a part in encouraging democratic uprisings, notably in late 2010, when the people of Tunisia became the first in the Arab world for a generation to take to the streets and oust a leader, after WikiLeaks cables exposed government corruption and repression. Their actions, in turn, helped to spark the Arab Spring. In 2009, Amnesty International gave WikiLeaks its Media Award for exposing “extra-judicial killings and disappearances” in Kenya; and WikiLeaks-obtained documents have been submitted as evidence in human-rights cases around the world. At times, in places without democratic process or a free press, WikiLeaks has been an invaluable, sometimes unique, window into the way things really are.
Conversation about redaction often leads to conversation about journalism. This begs the question: is Julian Assange a journalist? And frankly, does he even want to be? Assange has always had a vexed relationship to journalists, and to mainstream journalism itself. He’s won many journalism awards over the years, and at times – especially in the early years, when releases like Collateral Murder were carefully edited over extended periods by teams of people; when information was independently verified (by physically sending two journalists to Baghdad, for example); when those affected were contacted personally in an attempt to protect them – he has acted according to journalism’s highest standards.
But after partnering with some of the most influential journalism publications in the world – The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel and El País – over the Manning leaks, he’s spent much of the past decade violently opposed to most traditional journalistic endeavour. As early as 2010 he told The New Yorker’s Khatchadourian he had no interest in turning WikiLeaks into a journalistic operation. “We come not to save journalism but to destroy it,” he said. “Doesn’t deserve to live. Too debased. Has to be ground down into ashes before a new structure can be formed. The basic asymmetric information between writer and reader just encourages lying.”
What Assange appears to value is total transparency. WikiLeaks has admitted it reads only a tiny fraction of the material it releases, which often means that basic journalistic functions: context, analysis, editorial balance and right-of-reply, may all be lacking. To supporters, this is a refreshing change from editorial interference and spin; to others, it suggests that though Assange is many things, he’s not a journalist.
“No journalistic entity I have ever heard of – none – simply releases to the world an elephantine amount of material it has not read,” says prominent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams of Harvard and Princeton law schools, referring to WikiLeaks’ general operation. Abrams maintains that WikiLeaks is “an organisation of political activists, a source for journalists, and a conduit of hacked information to the press and the public”. Assange himself, according to former The New York Times editor Bill Keller, is “a complicated source”, but not a journalist.
A slightly different view is that Assange is, via WikiLeaks, a publisher, even if he’s not personally a journalist; and that as a publisher he’s delivering on one of journalism’s key values: disseminating important information that is in the public’s interest to know. Even Assange’s most inveterate enemies acknowledge the significance of some WikiLeaks revelations, and none of its material, however occasionally problematic its sourcing, has ever been proven to be false. In a world of fake news, this matters.
In Australia, it can be hard to feel the relevance of this debate, because most WikiLeaks disclosures have had no direct connection to us. But in fact, it may matter more here than anywhere. In a national climate of government raids on individual journalists and journalistic organisations, and in the midst of a Senate inquiry into press freedoms, Australians are being asked more seriously than ever before to decide how much we have a right to know, and who gets to tell us.
Though it might sound melodramatic, Andrew Fowler, former ABC Four Corners reporter and author, believes that “we’re verging on authoritarianism in this country. We have passed more counterterrorism and surveillance and security laws in Australia since 2001 than any other Western country. And yet we don’t have the journalistic protections of either the UK, through the European Court of Human Rights, or the US via the First Amendment [which protects journalists and the freedom of the press]. So we’re mirroring the laws of our intelligence-sharing allies, but we have not given the same protections to the journalists who report under those laws.”
Facing trial in the US, Assange will be able to invoke First Amendment protections – but only if he can show that he is, indeed, a journalist. And the issues of journalism and redaction are no longer merely philosophical: they’re right there in black and white. Counts 15, 16 and 17 of his indictment read (my italics): “Assange, having unauthorised possession of significant activity reports … containing the names of individuals, who risked their safety and freedom by providing information to the United States and our allies, communicated the documents containing names of those sources to all the world by publishing them on the Internet.”
Incredible as it may seem, the US extradition case against Julian Assange concerns only the disclosures of 2010. It has nothing to do with WikiLeaks’ more recent, and arguably even more famous revelations: those involving the US presidential elections of 2016.
This release involved more than 150,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta during 2016. These emails have been squarely blamed by some for Clinton’s eventual defeat by Donald Trump.
Much of the material in these emails is extremely pedestrian. The most damning details involve Democrat staffers and volunteers criticising Clinton’s then rival Bernie Sanders: discussing weak spots like his polling numbers and religion; calling him a “doofus” for attacking the Paris Agreement on climate change; expressing frustration that he wouldn’t give up despite a “near-impossible” chance of beating Clinton. There’s no evidence that these criticisms went beyond email gossip, but when they were made public, the DNC chairperson and three employees resigned. All of this was an extraordinary windfall for Donald Trump, who took to joyful exclamations: “I love WikiLeaks!”
In retrospect, the emails themselves were far less significant than the assessment by US intelligence agencies that they were obtained by Russian agents who hacked into the DNC system and passed on the information to WikiLeaks in an attempt to influence the US election. According to the US government, Assange – knowingly or not – had become a tool of the Russian state.
Assange has always denied this. His supporters maintain that, rather than a state-sponsored hack, the information was a “leak” by a single individual. Some have alluded to a DNC employee, Seth Rich, who was murdered in Washington DC in 2016. Others point to the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who claims to have had personal contact with the leaker. “I know who leaked [the DNC emails],” he has said. “I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider.”
As with the sexual assault case, the WikiLeaks-Russia allegations have become a mess of conflicting claims. On one side are the combined forces of the US National Security Agency (NSA), the FBI, the CIA and multiple private cybersecurity firms, who have all remained adamant that Russia was behind the leaks. This view has gained credibility in the past year, with the serving of an official indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller, charging 12 Russian intelligence agents with highly specific and detailed crimes that led directly to the WikiLeaks revelations.
Supporters point, in contrast, to an analysis by a group of former senior intelligence specialists in the US known as VIPS. This group includes former NSA technical director Walter Binney and former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter (who correctly identified that Iraq did not possess significant weapons of mass destruction in 2002, before the 2003 US-led invasion of the country). In 2017, VIPS published an article claiming the Russia story was nonsense, and that the leak had occurred via a download onto a USB-style storage device, such as a single whistleblower might use.
But some members, including Ritter, later dissented from the story. Binney also stepped back from parts of it, and it’s never gained widespread support. The vast majority of mainstream opinion now accepts that Russia was the source of the WikiLeaks election disclosures.
Why does any of this matter? It matters to the Americans because they clearly have an interest in establishing whether their electoral process was tampered with. And it matters to Assange because, once again, his reputation is at stake. Being the conduit of genuine whistleblowing information and increasing political transparency is one thing; being part of (even unwittingly) a battle between two state actors is quite different. Facilitating conflicts among the powerful is dangerous ground to tread: such information might tip the balance of international power, or advance unknown international agendas, or start a war.
An additional problem for Assange is that he is well known to be anti-Clinton; in February 2016, he wrote in a WikiLeaks editorial that “Hillary lacks judgment and will push the United States into endless, stupid wars which spread terrorism … She’s a war hawk with bad judgment who gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people.”
Opponents to Assange say WikiLeaks became a vehicle for his personal animus, thus betraying its mission of apolitical purity. His supporters disagree. “Being anti-Hillary does not make him pro-Trump,” says Mary Kostakidis. “But the truth is, the US establishment cannot forgive him for Trump’s election.” As for his Clinton remarks: “Look, many would agree with that assessment of Hillary. You could possibly accuse him of lacking the shrewdness to keep his opinions closer to his chest. But we all do have personal opinions: journalists, editors and publishers.”
These groups, however, are professionally liable for their objectivity. They can be sued for defamation; brought before press complaints tribunals for bias; lose their jobs for failures of fact or judgment. No such professional limits apply to Julian Assange.
Mary Kostakidis last saw Julian Assange in Belmarsh eight weeks ago. It took her an hour and a half to reach him through the prison’s various security stages: when she finally arrived at the visitors’ hall she found him in “this massive room with 50 prisoners, and two or three visitors to each prisoner”.
Assange’s condition, she says, shocked her. “He was just sitting very still, looking straight ahead. He’s not well,” she says steadily. “He can’t focus easily. I could see how he was struggling. It was very difficult to hear. I had to be like this …” – she stands up and puts both hands on the table, leaning her body forward towards me – “… the guard kept asking me to sit down.” She sits down. “I told the guard I’d come a long way to hear him, and then the guard offered to move us to a quieter part of the room, and that was a little better.”
Kostakidis has a pretty good poker face. But talking about Assange’s condition, her voice falters. “If we allow this to continue, he’ll die, and we won’t know whether he’s been killed, or whether he’s taken his own life. There were moments when his intelligence and passion broke through, but ultimately, if a government is trying to destroy you, and you’re at their mercy, they will succeed.”
The Australian government certainly appears singularly unmoved by Julian Assange. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not respond to Good Weekend’s questions about whether he’d received basic consular assistance (which is simply to advocate for every Australian’s right to fair treatment in foreign jails, and proper access to legal materials). Claims of maltreatment and solitary confinement appear unfounded, but Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson says she “remains concerned” about his ability to prepare his case. “He is in effective isolation because he is [in the medical sector of the prison],” she writes in an email. “As far as I am aware, he does not yet have access to a laptop; his solicitors have had to fight to be able to deliver him papers in person because of severe delays in papers reaching him by post.”
Here in Australia, meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the legal processes must “run their course” and Assange should “face the music”. The government position appears to be, as former High Commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer told the National Press Club in November, that “If the US wants to extradite him, and extradition proceedings are underway, Australia can’t [intervene] even if it wanted to.”
This is total nonsense, says everyone with experience: diplomacy is all about pulling levers behind the scenes. When Australian filmmaker James Ricketson was imprisoned for spying in Cambodia in 2017, then-PM Malcolm Turnbull made a deal with Cambodian PM Hun Sen to release him; in the end, he was freed three weeks after receiving a guilty verdict and six-year jail term from the Cambodian court. “That’s how diplomacy works,” says Ricketson. “It’s pretty down and dirty.”
Assange supporters hope something similar will happen here. “What should happen,” says Bob Carr, “is that our foreign minister, Marise Payne, should have a conversation with Mike Pompeo, her American counterpart. She should remind him of what a good ally we are to the US, always to be counted on. She should remind him that, importantly to his president, the US runs a trade surplus with Australia, and she should say, ‘In view of these things, we think it the better course to quietly let this drop. Besides,’ she could argue, ‘if you go ahead, you are likely to face a backlash in Australia and damage the US-Australia alliance.’ She is absolutely entitled to make those representations.”
The problem, say sources in government, is that Australia may be reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of Assange. Australia may also be too afraid – “too craven”, according to one – to test its standing with the US; and there may be a sense that the US has gone too far to back down, so a request to do so would be both embarrassing and useless.
The US-Australia relationship may be further tested if, eventually, the UK refuses extradition and deports Assange back to Australia. It appears that the US might then be able to request his extradition directly from us. What will we do then?
At this stage, none of this is certain. What does seem clear, at the time of writing, is that the Australian government must move before anything will change for Assange. And crucially, for the Australian government to move, the Australian people must also move. “If you’re a footballer or a handsome young couple,” says James Ricketson, “the government will step in, because there’s clear public interest and sympathy. But my feeling is that with Julian, until there’s a public outcry – and until the media puts the metaphorical blowtorch to the belly of government – they’re not going to do anything.”
And so we return to the fundamental question of Julian Assange: the question of reputation. Is there enough sympathy for him – this particular man, at this particular moment – to galvanise public support? And can we, in the final analysis, look beyond reputation to the broader picture, and decide what principles of democracy the Assange case represents, and whether those principles matter, even if the man himself is not to our liking?
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie certainly hopes so. He has recently registered a parliamentary group, along with co-chair George Christensen, of 11 MPs committed to bringing Assange home. “I’m not a friend of Julian – I’ve never met him,” he says. “And I know that some members of the group have no time for him at all. A number actually feel very negatively towards him.
“But I think it’s very telling that those people, who don’t like him at all, would still join a parliamentary group to bring him home. They care about him as an Australian in trouble; they care about the principles of international law; they care about the public’s right to know information that impacts on democracy. And they care about the importance of speaking truth to power.”
John Shipton, Julian Assange’s father, can be forgiven for not mentioning these larger issues. At the end of our conversation, I ask him what he thinks will happen to his son. He is silent for a long time. “It’s a very difficult question,” he says finally. “I just keep working towards the idea of Julian seeing his family; just sitting in one of the sidewalk cafes and watching the passing parade. I just keep working towards that.
“Julian is a myth for a lot of people,” he adds suddenly. “He’s not real. Perhaps that’s always the case with other people. We can’t, at a distance, say what any man’s life is. We can only imagine.”
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