A cross-party delegation of Australian politicians met with U.S. officials, members of Congress and civil rights groups in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to urge the U.S. government to abandon efforts to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is accused of publishing classified U.S. military documents.
The group of Australian lawmakers included former Deputy Prime Minister and National Party Leader Barnaby Joyce, Labor Party member of parliament Tony Zappia, Independent member of parliament Monique Ryan, Liberal Party Sen. Alex Antic and Greens Party Sens. Peter Whish-Wilson and David Shoebridge.
Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, joined the delegation in Washington for its meetings with U.S. officials.
The delegation brought a letter signed by more than 60 members of parliament calling on the U.S. to drop charges against Assange, who is fighting against extradition to the U.S., where he could be sentenced to up to 175 years in an American maximum-security prison.
He is facing 17 charges for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public under the Espionage Act and one charge alleging a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. Assange would face trial in Alexandria, Virginia, if he is extradited to the U.S.
Speaking at a press conference outside the Justice Department Wednesday evening, members of the delegation said they are optimistic a resolution can be reached with the U.S. to secure Assange’s freedom, but they remain committed to continuing to pressure the U.S. until the prosecution comes to a conclusion.
‘We did not come here to pick a fight,’ Joyce told reporters. ‘We came here to present a case and to lobby for an outcome. And this is part of the process of making sure that people are aware of all the facts and the wider facts as we also have grown to know over a number of years. So, the delegation has come from every corner of the political spectrum, but we have arrived in Washington at the one spot, and that is, after 11 years, enough is enough.’
Assange has been held at London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy April 11, 2019, for breaching bail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy in London since 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.
The delegation said it attempted to speak with Assange at Belmarsh but was denied visits. Members of the delegation said they have been in contact with Assange’s family.
The charges against Assange came in response to the 2010 publication of cables U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning leaked to WikiLeaks that detailed alleged war crimes committed by the U.S. government in the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp, Iraq and Afghanistan. The materials also expose instances of the CIA allegedly engaging in torture and rendition.
WikiLeaks’ ‘Collateral Murder’ video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, was also published 13 years ago.
‘Literally, all sides of politics have come together and united on this one key message, which is that an Australian citizen, Julian Assange, should come home,’ Joyce said. ‘The only crime that we see that Julian Assange has been charged with is the crime of being a journalist, the crime of telling the truth. And the fact that it’s an Australian citizen that has been targeted by one of our closest friends and allies is a very real concern to us as politicians and to a growing part of the Australian public.’
U.S. prosecutors and critics of Assange have argued WikiLeaks’ publication of classified material put the lives of its sources and allies at risk. But, as members of the delegation stressed to Fox News Digital Wednesday, there is no evidence Assange’s work put anyone in danger.
Whish-Wilson told Fox News Digital after the press conference the case against Assange has already strained U.S.-Australian relations but stressed that U.S. officials have been receptive to the delegation’s concerns.
‘Julian Assange has suffered enough,’ Whish-Wilson said. ‘Regardless of what you think of his character or what he’s done, he’s already paid a heavy price. And I think from here on in, it’s going to be very interesting to see where that relationship goes. We are the closest friends, the closest allies of the U.S. That relationship should be based on mutual respect and mutual trust. So, while we have respect for the U.S., I think we expect the U.S. will also show respect for us by listening and acting.’
President Biden will host Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in late October, and the delegation said the prime minister is expected to bring up Assange’s case. Albanese has repeatedly called on the U.S. in recent months to end the prosecution of the Australian journalist.
The Obama administration decided not to indict Assange after WikiLeaks published the cables in 2010 because it also would have had to indict journalists from major news outlets who published the materials. Former President Barack Obama also commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses to seven years.
But former President Donald Trump’s Justice Department later moved to indict Assange under the Espionage Act, and the Biden administration has continued to pursue his prosecution.
‘If you look at what’s actually transpired here, the person who was responsible, we understand, for the leak had their sentence commuted. That was Chelsea Manning,’ Antic told Fox News Digital. ‘We are dealing with a situation where the publisher is now still being pursued under those circumstances. We have been saying we find it puzzling. I can’t see how there wouldn’t be a chilling effect on the free press if this was allowed to proceed.’
Members of the delegation pointed to how Assange is the only journalist facing prosecution for publishing material that other news outlets also published. The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País worked with Assange on the publication of excerpts from more than 250,000 documents he obtained in the Cablegate leak.
Last year, the editors and publishers of these U.S. and European outlets wrote an open letter calling for the U.S. to drop the charges against Assange.
‘Australians are very confused as to why you would pardon the whistleblower and then go after the publisher,’ Whish-Wilson told Fox News Digital. ‘We also know that other publications here in the U.S. have also published some of these large leaks as well, prior to WikiLeaks. And the Department of Justice is not seeking their indictment on criminal offenses, but they’re going after Julian Assange.’
The Australian politicians also cited polling Wednesday showing nearly 90% of Australians believe the charges against Assange should be dropped.
‘Most Australians feel that, as a publisher and journalist, he hasn’t committed any crimes and feel that the charges that they laid against him by the Trump administration weren’t warranted and that the exhibition of the extradition proceedings by the U.S. should be dropped,’ Ryan told Fox News Digital.
‘We think that it’s really important that we speak to the representatives of the Department of Justice and the State Department, but also to politicians,’ she added. ‘But we need to make sure people understand how Australians feel. We’re not sure that people do. Obviously, there are situations that go on for a long time, and people are no longer particularly seeing them … in terms of having them aware of the nature of the charges against them.’
The State Department declined to comment to Fox News Digital. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., led a letter to the Justice Department earlier this year demanding that it drop charges against Assange. Fox News Digital reached out to Tlaib’s office for comment about the Australian delegation but did not hear back in time for publication.
The delegation told Fox News Digital it met with a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers supporting its cause, and the delegation will meet with more U.S. officials and members of Congress Thursday. The Australian politicians are also meeting with representatives of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
‘We’re in touch with Julian Assange’s family and legal team and look forward to continuing our conversations with them,’ FIRE General Counsel Ronnie London said in a statement to Fox News Digital. ‘We remain concerned about the threat to press freedom posed by the use of the Espionage Act in contexts like this.’
During the Trump administration, the CIA allegedly had plans to kill Assange over the publication of sensitive agency hacking tools known as ‘Vault 7,’ which the agency said represented ‘the largest data loss in CIA history,’ Yahoo reported in 2021. The CIA had discussions ‘at the highest levels’ of the administration about plans to assassinate Assange in London and allegedly followed orders from director Mike Pompeo to draw up kill ‘sketches’ and ‘options,’ according to the report.
The agency also had advanced plans to kidnap and rendition Assange and had made a political decision to charge him, according to the report.
‘It’s fascinating about this issue, not just in Australia. We’ve got some hard right politicians here. We’ve got some hard left politicians. We’ve got centrists, and that’s exactly what we’re experiencing in the U.S.,’ Whish-Wilson told Fox News Digital. ‘This is an issue that cuts.
‘It gets libertarians exercised. It gets social justice campaigners exercised. And I think that’s what makes it really unique. It’s not very often that you … it’s a conviction issue, right? So, if you’re a conviction politician, no matter what color or what political persuasion, it’s bringing people together. And I think that’s a good thing.’
WikiLeaks also published internal communications in 2016 between the Democratic National Committee and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign that revealed the DNC’s attempts to boost Clinton in that year’s Democratic primary.