Mia Armitage with Dr John Jiggens and Rob Osborne
‘It’s becoming catastrophic. I’m fighting for his life.’
So said lawyer Stella Morris as she tried to deliver a freedom petition for her 49-year-old partner, and father of their two young sons, Gabriel and Max.
He’s better known as WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
Ms Morris took the petition, signed by 80,000 people, to the famous residence of the UK prime minister in London’s Downing Street earlier this month.
But she was turned away owing to pandemic restrictions, and told waiting reporters that she would post it instead.
Assange family reunites for brief moment
Mr Assange was finally allowed to see his young family again late last month with physical distancing and face masks.
The Australian prisoner was told if he touched his children he would have to self-isolate for two weeks.
With his trial at that time due to restart in twelve days, the emotional and psychological strain would have been more like something from a Martin Scorsese film than life as we thought we knew it in a Western democracy.
United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, long ago decried Mr Assange’s continued detention as meeting international legal definitions of torture. Yet, to date, nobody listening has responded with enough power in Mr Assange’s favour.
A ‘threat to freedom of speech’
Back home, former Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, is on Mr Assange’s side, telling supporters at a solidarity event in Sydney last week the case was ‘a frightening precedent for people who might be given secrets’.
Mr Carr is also a former ABC journalist and said journalists might be given secrets and publish those secrets ‘because that’s what journalists do’.
‘And it often leaves governments uncomfortable,’ Mr Carr later told community radio’s The Wire.
‘That those journalists are branded as spies and put on trial under espionage law – is a threat to freedom of speech.’
More than 5,000 docs on abandoned Swedish charges
US extradition hearings against Mr Assange continue at the Old Bailey courthouse in London, with his father and regular voice on Bay FM, John Shipton, present.
Mr Shipton spoke to Community Newsroom reporter Dr John Jiggens, in the week leading up to the resumption of hearings, as the campaign for his son’s freedom intensified.
‘We are on the trail of bringing Julian home,’ Mr Shipton said, having just collected a ‘trove’ of more than 5,000 documents from Sweden, related to the now dropped charges against the WikiLeaks founder.
The controversial matter never made it to court in time before a Swedish statute of limitations took effect after ten years, and disqualified it.
But the consequences for Mr Assange were drastic: an arrest warrant in the UK; almost seven years of near solitary asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy; and current imprisonment in Belmarsh high security as the US extradition case unfolds and the pandemic crisis continues.
No time to prepare for 18 new charges
Mr Assange’s legal defence team face more pressure thanks to US prosecutors, in June, adding eighteen new charges against the journalist; seventeen of them under the US Espionage Act.
Defence lawyers last week tried to have hearings postponed to give them more time to respond to the new charges, but Judge Vanessa Baraitser was undeterred.
Judge Baraitser said the defence had already been given a chance to ‘vacate’ the set date for hearings to start on 7 September and had failed to take the opportunity.
She read from a previous case and effectively said if the lawyers weren’t ready, they had no one to blame but themselves.
Later Mr Shipton told Community Newsroom his son hadn’t seen his lawyers for six months prior to last week’s hearings.
US prosecution tries to ‘silence’ Assange defence witnesses
Mr Shipton also said US prosecutors tried to argue against defence witnesses being allowed to speak during the opening hearings.
The prosecutors argued that since witnesses had all supplied written statements, it was time-consuming and unnecessary to have them speak, and that hearings should move straight to cross-examination.
‘The defence argued that was wrong, and that the public should be able to hear and participate,’ Mr Shipton told Community Newsroom.
Judge Baraitser agreed time-saving was a worthy consideration but allowed witnesses to speak for a maximum of thirty minutes.
Hey Payne, get on the blower to Mike Pompeo!
Mr Shipton said Judge Baraitser also made a statement refusing online access requests to hearings from Amnesty International Reporters Without Borders, and 40 other NGOs and European parliamentarians.
‘They were neither permitted to attend the court nor observe online,’ said Mr Shipton and it’s unclear whether Judge Baraitser explained her reasoning for the lockouts.
Mr Shipton says ‘only the outrage, only the determination’ can right his son’s predicament.
But former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr disagrees, telling The Wire he thinks ‘any Australian minister is entitled to pick up the phone to Mike Pompeo and say to the Secretary of State, “Mike, I think you’d agree that we’re a very good ally”, and then put the case for this extradition being quietly dropped.
‘Because he is an Australian citizen,’ Mr Carr said, ‘he’s not guilty of espionage’.
Pandemic delays hearings
In yet another film-worthy dramatic turn last week, hearings were adjourned until the end of the day on Thursday when Judge Baraitser heard one of the US lawyers may have been exposed to COVID-19.
The response comes after repeated denial of requests for Mr Assange to be removed from high security in Belmarsh, owing to his categorisation as a high-risk COVID-19 candidate and outbreaks of the virus at the prison.
Most journalists trying to access hearings on Monday via video link say they were repeatedly ‘bumped off’ due to technical glitches, including former ABC presenter, Mary Kostakidis, who has been live-tweeting reports on the trial, and it’s unclear how many journalists were physically present in the courtroom that day.
Tune in to BayFM’s Community Newsroom for regular reports from John Shipton: https://bit.ly/3ivYH8Z.