Julian Assange unites cross-party delegation in Washington to push for WikiLeaks founder’s freedom

Julian Assange unites cross-party delegation in Washington to push for WikiLeaks founder’s freedom
  • PublishedSeptember 21, 2023

An unlikely coalition of Australian parliamentarians has converged on Washington to lobby US decision-makers to drop the legal pursuit of Julian Assange and grant his freedom by Christmas.

The WikiLeaks founder has been in a London prison since 2019 as he fights to stop his extradition to face espionage charges in the US.

The cross-party delegation, which includes former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, today met Republican congressmen Paul Rand and Thomas Massie ahead of a meeting with representatives from the Department of Justice.

They are expecting to meet Democrats Jim McGovern and Ilhan Omar on Thursday local time.

“We didn’t come here to pick a fight, we came here to get a resolution,” Mr Joyce said.

“What we want to see is this issue brought to a close.

“And what we are hearing from people within the United States [is] that it’s a growing movement, a growing view that is held by them as well, and that’s very encouraging.”

Along with Mr Joyce, the parliamentary delegation comprises Labor MP Tony Zappia, Liberal senator Alex Antic, independent MP Monique Ryan, and Greens senators David Shoebridge and Peter Whish-Wilson.

The six parliamentarians stand in front of the Capitol building for a press conference. Tony Zappia is speaking.
Tony Zappia, Monique Ryan, Alex Antic, David Shoebridge, Barnaby Joyce and Peter Whish-Wilson travelled to Washington.(ABC News: Bradley McLennan)

“Sixty hours of travel for two days of meetings,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“It’s already been really useful.

“But I think the experience today has shown that people just don’t know a lot of the detail.

“So one really important thing we’ve done today is provide that detail for them and get that line of communication open.”

Support from many quarters

Mr Assange has been detained in London’s Belmarsh Prison since his 2019 eviction from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he had taken refuge for seven years to avoid extradition to Sweden on sex crimes allegations.

The US has more recently been trying to have him extradited to face 17 espionage charges and a computer hacking charge over WikiLeaks’ publication of classified military documents in 2010.

Thomas Massie, a Republican House member who says he tried to convince Donald Trump to drop the case when he was president, said Mr Assange’s ongoing detention was a freedom of speech issue.

He said the 52-year-old had been “overly punished” after spending more than a decade in prison and should be allowed to return to Australia.

“We may get a chance to do this,” he said.

“It’s not a partisan issue, and this administration, the Biden administration, could do it as well.”

A UK court ruled against Mr Assange’s extradition in 2021, citing mental health concerns. But the UK government overruled that decision last year.

Mr Assange has lodged multiple appeals, including to the European Court of Human Rights.  

Julian Assange looks to the camera as he is photographed from behind glass with graffiti etched into it. His grey hair is back.
Julian Assange leaves a London court in January 2020.(Reuters: Simon Dawson)

Numerous US congressional representatives, both Democrat and Republican, have previously called for the US to drop the case.

Mr Assange also continues to receive support from world leaders including Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who mentioned the case at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.

“Preserving press freedom is essential,” he said during his speech to the assembly in New York.

“A journalist, like Julian Assange, cannot be punished [for] informing society in a transparent and legitimate way.”

US remains determined

The US government has been unmoved by Australia’s ongoing complaints that the case has dragged on for too long.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Australia needed to understand American “sensitivities” on the issue.

“The actions that he is alleged to have committed risked very serious harm to our national security, to the benefit of our adversaries, and put named human sources at grave risk,” Mr Blinken said.

The US State Department said it had “nothing to announce” in relation the parliamentary delegation’s visit, and it was policy to “not comment on ongoing extradition matters”. The White House and Department of Justice have also been approached for comment.

Many Democrats have little sympathy for Mr Assange, partly because of his role in the leaking of hacked Democratic campaign emails during the 2016 election race, which could make an intervention by President Joe Biden less likely.

But a group of Democrats, including high-profile congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wrote to the Department of Justice in April, arguing the prosecution undermined America’s credibility as a defender of free speech and free press.

A small group of supporters also regularly protests outside the Department of Justice building in Washington.

One of them, Kathy Boylan, said Australia could do more to secure Mr Assange’s freedom.

“Say to the United States, ‘We have always cooperated with you in wars and preparations, we are going to withhold that support right now until you release Julian Assange,'” she said.

“He’s a truth teller. He told us about the war crimes.”

Four women hold signs with messages like 'press freedom' and 'no extradition' in front of a brick building.
Press freedom supporters, including Kathy Boylan, want to see Julian Assange freed.(ABC News: Jade Macmillan)

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told the ABC he was frustrated a diplomatic resolution still had not been reached.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong, in New York for the UN meeting, said Australia had raised the issue with the US many times.

“We think this has gone on for too long,” she said.

“And the breadth of political representation on the delegation I think demonstrates that there are a great many people in Australia who would like to see this matter resolved.”


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