By: Daniel Hurst and Paul Karp
Two Liberal MP have backed calls for the Australian government to seek Julian Assange’s return to Australia “as quickly as possible”, after Barnaby Joyce said the US extradition request was unfair.
Liberal backbenchers Jason Falinski and Bridget Archer called for diplomatic action to secure the Wikileaks co-founder’s return to his home country after the deputy prime minister said it was unfair that the US wanted to extradite Assange to face prosecution over actions allegedly not committed inside the US.
But Falinski also cautioned against megaphone diplomacy over the case, saying it “requires a level of subtlety to get the best possible deal we can for one of our citizens”.
Joyce is the most prominent member of the government to speak out against the US government’s efforts to try Assange in the US in connection with WikiLeaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as diplomatic cables.
In an op-ed in the Nine newspapers on Tuesday, Joyce, the Nationals leader, argued the UK “should try him there for any crime he is alleged to have committed on British soil or send him back to Australia, where he is a citizen”.
The high court in London ruled last week that Assange could be extradited to the US. Assange’s legal team have vowed to appeal. It also prompted warnings from press freedom and rights groups that the prosecution of a publisher under the US Espionage Act sets “a dangerous precedent”.
Falinski told Guardian Australia on Tuesday the government had “to do what we can to get an Australian citizen back to Australia as quickly as possible”.
But he rejected claims the government had given up on Assange, suggesting diplomats were working behind the scenes to extract concessions from the US.
That included assurances about Assange’s treatment in the US prison system and that the US would allow him to be transferred to Australia to serve any prison sentence.
Falinski said Australia should pursue the matter out of public view.
“Clearly it’s a very delicate balancing act,” said Falinski, the MP for Mackellar. “I’m not sure a public spat with America … will end up with a better outcome.”
Archer told Guardian Australia: “The fact is that he is an Australian citizen who continues to suffer significant mental and physical health issues as a result of his ongoing incarceration because of the protracted legal battle.
“I believe he should be released and returned to Australia, and will continue to advocate for diplomatic action for that to occur,” the Tasmanian Liberal MP said.
The Labor MP Julian Hill, a member of the parliamentary friends of the Bring Julian Assange Home campaign, welcomed Joyce’s intervention.
Hill said, like Joyce, he had “never met Julian Assange” nor did he “agree with everything he’s said or done”.
“Frankly he’s a ratbag – but he’s our ratbag. But he’s entitled to the same protections as an Australian as you or me,” Hill said.
Hill said it was “disgraceful that Australia’s foreign minister and prime minister have done effectively nothing to speak up for him”.
“I hope that Barnaby Joyce coming out will finally give Liberals the confidence to also speak up.
“There is no legal resolution to this case – there never can be. It is inherently political, it needs political leaders to speak up in support of our values and our citizen.”
Hill accused Liberals of “hiding” on the issue, suggesting that more support intervention on Assange’s behalf than are prepared to say so publicly.
There are 24 members of the Assange parliamentary group, including nine Greens, eight Labor, four from the independents or crossbench, and three from the Coalition: Joyce, Nationals MP George Christensen and Archer.
The office of the prime minister, Scott Morrison, was contacted for comment about the Assange case on Sunday and Tuesday. Morrison has not responded to questions about whether he agrees with Joyce’s concerns about the treatment of Assange and whether he has ever directly raised the matter with the US president, Joe Biden, or plans to make additional representations.
So far, the Australian government appears to be staring down calls to intervene to secure Assange’s freedom.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Sunday it was monitoring the Australian citizen’s case closely, but would “continue to respect the UK legal process – including any further appeals under UK law” – and emphasised Australia was “not a party to the case”.
“The Australian government has raised the situation of Mr Assange with US and UK counterparts – including our expectations of due process, humane and fair treatment, access to proper medical and other care, and access to his legal team – and will continue to do so,” the department spokesperson said.
WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange is taken in custody from a London court last year.
Australian government stares down calls to press UK and US for Julian Assange’s release
The US alleges that Assange conspired with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a password hash to a classified US Department of Defence computer, among other allegations.
Reporters Without Borders has raised concerns that the US Espionage Act lacks a public interest defence, and the precedent “could be applied to any media outlet that published stories based on the leaked documents, or indeed any journalist, publisher or source anywhere in the world”.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said he failed to see “what purpose is being served by the ongoing incarceration of Julian Assange”.
“I don’t agree with a whole range of Julian Assange’s views, but there needs to be a point in which you say that enough is enough,” Albanese said on Monday.
The independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie called on Morrison to “end this lunacy” and demand the US and UK release Assange, while the Greens said Australia should press the Biden administration “to drop these absurd charges”.