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Julian Assange's clear and present danger

  • 15 December 2011

The 2011 Walkley Awards included a surprising 'Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism', to Julian Assange's website WikiLeaks.

According to the citation, 'by designing and constructing a means to encourage whistleblowers, WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief Julian Assange took a brave, determined and independent stand for freedom of speech and transparency that has empowered people all over the world.

In June, Assange also won in Britain the Martha Gellhorn Prize for 'journalism at the cutting edge ... that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs ... and raises 'forgotten' issues of public importance, without fear or favour, working against the grain of government spin'.

These two awards commending WikiLeaks as publicly empowering journalism may yet prove to be vital to Assange.

If he is soon extradited from UK to Sweden, as now seems likely, he faces the danger of early 'temporary surrender' from there to the US, under a Swedish-US arrangement for transferring people charged with crimes in both countries. This enables the two governments to avoid procedural requirements and opportunities for appeal that exist under normal extradition arrangements.

Assange could then face very serious charges in the US. Cables recently obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald under Freedom of Information from the Australian Embassy in Washington confirm that since 2010 the US Justice Department has conducted an 'active and vigorous inquiry into whether Assange can be charged under US law, most likely the 1917 Espionage Act'.

This investigation is 'unprecedented both in its scale and nature'. Media reports that a secret grand jury has been convened in Virginia are 'likely true'. The embassy reports that 'a central theme has been the question of whether WikiLeaks is a media organisation ... the history of these cases has never seen a media outlet convicted for publication of leaked documents'.

The embassy notes that the US Justice Department was investigating alleged technical assistance provided by WikiLeaks to Private Bradley Manning who is under arrest and facing treason charges, and that 'evidence of such a conspiracy could assist prosecutors rebut claims that WikiLeaks was acting merely as a media organisation' in accepting for publication secret cables from Manning.

Assange thus faces risks of a long prison sentence if sent to the US. For who knows what