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Fraudster turned victim: What Australia sees in Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange received a hero’s welcome even before he was due to return to his native Australia on Wednesday after pleading guilty to felony charges of violating the US Espionage Act.

Australian politicians have raced to release statements supporting a plea deal that would set him free. Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister who is now Australia’s ambassador to the United States, even joined him in the US courtroom on the Pacific island of Saipan.

Mr. Assange’s case ended up in a remote outpost – the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth tied to the US through post-World War II imperialism – which seems fitting.

He ended its impasse with the US government far from Washington, 14 years after he published classified military and diplomatic documents, revealing secret details about US espionage and the killing of civilians in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back then, he was a divisive figure — a fearless journalist to some, an anarchist recklessly endangering Americans to others. He became even more radical during the 2016 presidential election, when WikiLeaks published thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and from the Democratic National Committee that had been stolen by Russian hackers.

But after five years in prison in Britain, where he married and became the father of two children, Mr Assange has become a more attractive figure to Australians. Somewhere along the way, he became an underdog forced to endure the provocations of superpowers, and in a land settled by convicts, a rebel did do your best and deserve to return home.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the proceedings to release Mr. Assange were “a welcome development.”

“This is something that has been considered, patient, done in a calibrated way, that’s how Australia conducts itself on the international stage,” he said on Wednesday.

He added: “Regardless of your view of Mr. Assange’s activities, his case has dragged on far too long.”

Critics found that response lacked introspection. It ignores that Australia’s espionage laws are one of the most difficult things in the democratic worldwith penalties of up to 25 years in prison and weak protections for the press. And it overcame the Albanese government’s persistent resistance to greater transparency in public records and its failure to do so. Strengthen laws protecting whistleblowerseven though disappointment about some secret cases.

Johan Lidberg, an associate professor of journalism at Monash University in Melbourne who has worked with the United Nations on global press freedom, said he was surprised by the widespread political support for Mr. Assange. Somehow, in an instant, he managed to unite Green and Labor lawmakers along with conservative leaders. But how?

Mr. Lidberg said sympathy for Mr. Assange began to form in Australia after 2016, when at President Trump’s urging, he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy and placed in Belmarsh, a prison in the south. south-east London.

“His case went from being a case of hacking, journalism, publishing, advocacy to a humanitarian issue,” he said. “Maybe the Australian myth of ‘fairness’ has played a role. It was found that he was not given justice and was mistreated.”

The desire to protect journalistic responsibility – a factor that makes many Americans worry that Mr. Assange’s conviction will send threatening messages for reporters and sources – not a major concern in Australia, which has no constitutional right to free speech.

James Curran, professor of history at the University of Sydney and international affairs journalist, said Australians did not necessarily have the same reverence as Americans for “the whole culture of secrecy and classified documents”.

When a bipartisan group of Australian politicians went to Washington to lobby for Mr. Assange in October, they did not emphasize the need to protect the Press.

“They highlight how China and Russia are using the Assange case as evidence of the West’s blatant hypocrisy when it comes to the handling of political prisoners,” Mr. Curran said. “This happened in Washington.”

American law and order has lost respect. Many Australians are now whispering disapproval of the US criminal justice system, which they say is too effective and punitive, with the death penalty in some states and prison sentences in most long-term.

“It’s the high rate of incarceration, the abuse of the plea bargain process, even the way the US police are treated,” said Hugh White, a former Australian defense official and now professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. “I think even fairly conservative people doubt Assange will get a fair shake at the hands of the DOJ.”

Last year, when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Australia for high-level defense talks in Brisbane, he was asked about Mr. Assange’s case – and appeared uncomfortable with the suggestion that Mr. Assange was a victim of American capriciousness.

Standing at the outdoor podium, flanked by military veterans, Mr Blinken said he understood “the concerns and perspectives of Australians” but it was “very important that our friends here” understand Assange’s “alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in our country’s history.”

His comments seemed defensive and condescending to many Australians. Australia and the US remain side-by-side allies, having fought together in previous wars, and they are now building a collective defense framework to deter potential Chinese aggression. But Mr. Blinken’s tone has helped Mr. Assange come to represent another element of Australia’s relationship with the United States: Persistent ambivalence over the idea of ​​American exceptionalism.

“In part, this is just a reflection of the friction that great powers always create between their smaller satellites, but it’s not just that,” Mr. White said.

Among conservative, Anglo-centric Australians, he added, there was also some resentment about America replacing the British Empire after World War II. Others feel that the United States has often been too quick to dismiss the concerns of its friends and that by continuing to prosecute Mr. Assange, “the United States appears to be unreasonably vindictive,” he said.

Causing the United States to back down – and listen with a little more humility – seems to be something Australian politicians are eagerly celebrating. Along with Mr. Albanese, rural conservative lawmakers and Green Party liberals also praised Mr. Assange’s release. Mr. Rudd smiled enough during his appearance in court to be mistaken for a defense lawyer.

However, their winning mood may not have faded yet. Will the next round of leaks reveal secrets about Australia? What if Mr Assange and WikiLeaks choose a side in the US election or the war in Ukraine that most Australians do not support?

“It is clear that WikiLeaks has helped Trump and Putin more than anyone else and put more lives in danger,” Mr. Curran said. “This doesn’t seem to have really entered the debate in Australia.”


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