Interview with Jeff Sparrow

Right Now in conversation with Jeff Sparrow
Photo of Julian Assange
Jeff Sparrow is an Australian author and editor of literary journal Overland. Last month he, along with Elizabeth O’Shea, a Melbourne lawyer working on public interest litigation, wrote an open letter to Julia Gillard about their concern for the wellbeing of WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange. Mr Assange was arrested in London on December 7 on suspicion of sex-related crimes. However, following WikiLeaks’ publication of more than 250 000 secret US diplomatic cables, anti-Assange sentiments have been running high, especially in the United States, calling into question the possibility of Mr Assange receiving a fair trial.
“Open Letter: To Julia Gillard, re. WikiLeaks” was published on ABC’s The Drum on the day Mr Assange was arrested. More than 5000 people added their names to the petition in support of Mr Assange’s legal rights. Right Now spoke with Jeff about the open letter and why Mr Assange’s arrest carries a risk of turning into a political witch-hunt.

Mr Assange’s arrest carries a risk of turning into a political witch-hunt.

RN: The Australian Federal Police have advised that WikiLeaks’ gradual publication of more than 250,000 secret US embassy cables has not broken any Australian law. Julia Gillard did not know this at the time when she described the cable release as “illegal” in December. Should she have made that allegation?

JS: An accusation of illegality from an Australian Prime Minister is no small thing, particularly in the context in which the allegations were made against Julian Assange. At that time, Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, was under attack from various governments and individuals, some of whom were threatening him with physical harm. It was an extraordinary intervention from Gillard, particularly given that her own attorney-general later confirmed that Assange had broken no Australian laws.

Only less than a year ago it was discovered that the Labor government put WikiLeaks on a secret internet blacklist. Ironically, it was WikiLeaks who leaked this information, much to the displeasure of the government. WikiLeaks is no doubt politically controversial, but how real is the danger that politics may obstruct Mr Assange’s legal rights as an Australian citizen?

It’s impossible to discuss Wikileaks other than in the context of international politics. The accusations of sexual misconduct against Assange bear no relationship to Wikileaks’ activities. Yet it is very difficult to believe that he would have been pursued as assiduously had the US and its allies not been so determined to shut down the site. Under those circumstances, it is very difficult for Assange to receive due process in relation to the allegations he faces.

Rather than making wild and untrue claims about the illegality of Mr Assange’s activities, the Australian government should have been doing everything in its power to ensure he can respond to the Swedish allegations in an appropriate manner.

the Australian government should have been doing everything in its power to ensure he can respond to the Swedish allegations in an appropriate manner.

Following the publication of your open letter to Julia Gillard on The Drum, Kevin Rudd was quoted as saying: “Our responsibility is to ensure the consular rights and legal rights of all Australians abroad are protected. And that includes Mr Assange.” Do you approve of how the government is handling Mr Assange’s case currently?

The real question is why it took so long for such a simple and uncontroversial statement to be made. As the quote acknowledges, all Australians are entitled to certain consular rights and legal protections. Yet, when the controversy first broke, the Australian government seemed more determined to declare its solidarity with the US government against Assange, rather than insist that he would receive all his appropriate rights.

As your readers will know, Australian governments do not have a great track record of protecting Australian citizens abroad, particularly when those citizens have fallen foul of the War on Terror (Hicks, Habib, etc). The Assange case seems to be following a similar pattern.

Australian governments do not have a great track record of protecting Australian citizens abroad

Mr Assange’s legal team are fighting Swedish requests for his extradition, mainly on the premise that a Swedish extradition might result in an onward extradition to the US, likely on espionage-related charges. Is this a legitimate concern?

It is entirely legitimate. In the course of the War on Terror, the US government has shown a willingness to use all kinds of illegal and semi-legal methods against those it regards as its enemies, from kidnapping (AKA ‘extraordinary rendition’) to torture (‘enhanced interrogation)  to detention without trial (as in Guantánamo Bay). In Mr Assange’s case, there seems to be an unseemly scramble to find some basis to prosecute him, even though it’s far from clear what he’s done that’s any different from any other investigative journalist. After all, if publishing leaked classified information is a crime, why isn’t Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) in gaol? His entire career as an investigate journalist is predicated on his access to leaked secrets. Wherein lies the distinction between Woodward and Assange?

How likely is it that Mr Assange would have a fair trial if he were extradited to the US?

Did David Hicks receive a fair trial? Did Habib?

Consider, for instance, the fate of Bradley Manning, the man accused of passing secrets to Wikileaks. It’s been well-documented (by Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com and others) that Manning’s being kept in brutal conditions of extreme isolation, even though he has not yet been found guilty of anything. I would have no confidence that Assange would be treated fairly.

What made both you and Elizabeth O’Shea decide to write the open letter to the prime minister?

We thought that the rhetoric against Assange was so extreme and so over-the-top that it would appal many Australians. We were confident that, irrespective of what they thought about Wikileaks, most people would want to see Assange receive fair treatment in accordance with the rule of law– not a terribly radical demand, after all.

most people would want to see Assange receive fair treatment in accordance with the rule of law

Were you surprised by the enormous public response to the letter? Over 5000 people added their names to the petition in support of Mr Assange and, for a while, broke the comments section in the process. Were you expecting that kind of reaction?

We expected that the letter would receive some support. But, no, we never anticipated the overwhelming response. Because it was a document for publication, we initially approached people that we knew in the fields of publishing and law. But the draft soon went viral, so much so that we couldn’t keep up with the emails that poured in.

It was actually quite a cheering experience. A lot of the time, the instincts of ordinary people are much, much better than the instincts of politicians.

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  • Yaakov Snider

    The wuestion is not if julian assange will receive a fair trial it is more if the consenss will believe he recieved a fair trial ? and comparing these 2 cases pressed against him or 1 case and 1 accusation.. he will recieve fair treatment in the u.s. : the man who will be making sure of it is Alan dershowitz ,not receiving a fair trial with him as counsel is ridiculous . the sexual assault is a whole other prosecution for all the talk of it there is very little known.
    Assange is a hypocrite and a convenient demogod…..

    • Yaakov Snider

      assange is a hypocrite :” In the war of truth there are always innocent casualties.” . : julian assange . when asked how he felt about the confidentaial informers who he gave away their identifications who were killed or are now awaiting their deaths

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