29 August 2012, 11:36

President of Australian Lawyers Alliance speaks out in defense of Assange - interview

President of Australian Lawyers Alliance speaks out in defense of Assange - interview
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Julian Assange has finally been given asylum by Ecuador and Greg Barns spoke with the Voice of Russia's John Robles regarding the case of Julian Assange and Australia's slavish relationship with the United States. He says that there is still a lot Australia can do to ensure Mr. Assange's safety behind-the-scenes.

Hello! This is John Robles. I’m speaking with Mr. Greg Barns – he is a barrister (or a lawyer) and the Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance in Australia.

My first question is regarding your reaction to the Australian Government’s lack of protection for Julian Assange? What do you make of Australian Government’s inaction or lack of reaction?

Since he had been originally held for questioning in Sweden, the reality is that the Australian Government has been very scared to do much more for Mr. Assange because its alliance with the United States is so strong that it does not want to offend the US. And I think there is no doubt that the Australian Government understands that the US would like to extradite Mr. Assange from Sweden despite the fact that the Australian Government has been saying they know of no plans to do so.

What do you know about the secret grand jury that met in Virginia?

My understanding is that certainly a secret grand jury met. My understanding also is that the Stratfor documents show that there was a sealed indictment. Look, it would just be extraordinary to think that the Americans are not seeking to have Julian Assange prosecuted in the same way as they’ve had Bradley Manning prosecuted. The Americans have taken a very dim view of Julian Assange from day one. The Australian Government has been ensuring that it doesn’t upset the United States and that’s why, despite the fact that the Australian Government says that it’s done all it can to help Mr. Assange there are many Australians who think that it should have done a lot more by making correct representations to Washington that it does not want Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States and if he goes anywhere he goes to Australia.

What would you say to people who say that Australia has been taken over by the US as some say apparently has been the case with the UK and Sweden?

Well, I think Australia's track record when it comes to US foreign policy in recent years has played one of slavish adherence. Australia was one of the first to sign up to the war in Iraq, it’s been involved in Afghanistan. Last year the Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced putting a US base in Darwin, a northern city, which China was very hostile about. There is no doubt also that the United States is the premier ally for Australia and I think when it comes to Julian Assange, his rights come well behind those of Australia maintaining its alliance with the United States.

How do you think this is going to affect or has it affected Australian journalists and journalists worldwide as far as US censorship goes and strong arm tactics by the US?

I think what it does show is the United States’ hypocrisy on this particular issue. If the US Government decides to leak materials against other regimes such as China for example, or Russia, then that’s all ok. But if there’s material out there that the United States doesn’t want to be out there, then the United States comes down upon that journalist very very hard. And I think that the so called “land of the free” has shown that it has got a glass jaw when it comes to tactics being used against it, that it itself uses against other nations.

Why do you think the reaction was so extreme from the US?

The extreme reaction by the United States was because of the volume of material. And also what it did was that it exposed another side of the United States version of events about Iraq and Afghanistan. And the United States, like any empire, likes to control the flow of information. What Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did was to upend that control. It also showed I think that the world of international diplomacy, the inherent duplicity of that world, was exposed for all to see. One of the difficulties in this case I think for the United States is that Julian Assange doesn’t appear to have committed any offence, he certainly committed no offence in Australia. It is certainly highly questionable whether he committed any offence in the United States.

And the other difficulty I think is that whilst Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr says that Sweden has a track record of not extraditing people to the United States when they are on political crimes, in recent years that hasn’t been the case as Sweden has proved very weak when it comes to extradition of people from Sweden back to the United States in what we would say is a politically charged atmosphere in relation to the war on terror.

The UK threatening to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy compound I think is an unprecedented event in recent times. Do you see this as growing US influence? Do you see that as a dangerous precedent?

I think it’s a very dangerous precedent and I think what iе shows is that the stranglehold that the United States has over its allies like the United Kingdom and Australia when it wants to get its man, in this case Julian Assange, it will effectively rip up international diplomacy and the normal rules of civility that apply in order to do so. It was going to use an act of Parliament passed in 1987 not for this purpose, but to stop terrorist activities taking place in embassies. There is no sense in which Julian Assange could be in any way considered to be a terrorist.

Looking at the terrorist issue, do you think that has been exploited, manipulated and over-used by the United States?

The problem with the war on terror is that we have seen a growing erosion of fundamental liberties and rights in Australia, United Kingdom, Canada – a range of countries that participate in the war on terror. The difficulty with the war on terror is that it is ongoing, it is never-ending, and so legislation can be justified simply under the rubric that this is all part of the war on terror. And governments which use terrorism as a tool to oppress individuals or as a tool to curtail civil liberties are generally doing so simply because they want political control. It’s got nothing to do with illegitimate acts of terrorism at all.

Do you see a hand behind orchestrating the entire so called war on terror in order to take away the civil liberties and rights of individuals, not only in the United States but worldwide?

Certainly the United States led the war on terror through the PATRIOT Act passed in the heated moments after 9\11, and other countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom followed. And those laws have led to the jailing of many many people who were innocent, it also led to racial-profiling, it also have been counterproductive in terms of relations with the Muslim world.

Has an Australian citizen ever been granted asylum in another country?

That’s a very good question, John. I’m not aware of one. Certainly during the Vietnam War when Australians were resisting going to Vietnam, being conscripted, some Australians certainly may have gone, for example to Canada. Pierre Trudeau was granting asylum to the Americans, I’m not sure of any Australians going over there. But certainly I’m not aware of any Australians seeking asylum in the circumstances of Julian Assange. But the Australian Government certainly could have said – we want Julian Assange to come home, we’ve got some leverage over the Americans – the Americans want us as essentially a base for their Pacific-Axis in terms of containing China, we want Julian Assange home as part of that.

How do Australians feel towards the Government? Is there a noticeable backlash going on there in Australian right now?

Look, I think the difficulty is that both the major political parties in Australia have the same position on Julian Assange: they would effectively have sat on their hands and done very little to support him. I think a lot of Australians are very upset at the way in which Julian Assange is being treated by their Government. In the same way they were about David Hicks, an Australian who was found in Afghanistan, who was then taken in Guantanamo Bay where he languished for a number of years and eventually was brought back to Australia. Ordinary Australians are outraged about what happened to Hicks as they are about Assange simply because they expect their Government to protect their citizens when they get into trouble overseas.

Sure! As it should be. Do you think this is a sign, the fact that he was granted asylum in Ecuador, do you think it is a sign of the world maybe waking up? Or is it a sign of increasing or decreasing US influence?

I think what it shows is that there are many countries that have their own minds and that Australia needs to be very careful, that its rock solid, long-standing alliance with the United States doesn’t blind it to the fact that there are other countries in the world, particularly countries in central and Latin America or in the Asian region which take a much more, if not hostile view towards the United States, a certainly a more balanced view. And Australia needs to recognize that.

Ecuador is a very small country. A large percentage of their trade and economy is dependent on the US, yet they took such a bold step as granting Julian asylum. As a lawyer you know all that legal angles to this. How do you think Julian is going to get out of the embassy? And what do you think, this is going to proceed in the future? Do you think the Australian Government may in fact come out in support of him later on?

This is where the Australian Government can get involved. Its relationship with the United Kingdom is a long and historic relationship, it says it can’t get involved in this, it can get involved behind the scenes, as it can with the United States. Julian Assange should be given safe passage either to Ecuador or directly to Australia. And that can be done and that is what is usually done when a person seeks asylum. He should not be sent to Sweden because firstly the charges that he faces in Sweden are not even charges he’s simply wanted for questioning. And we know now that this is has been highly political exercise by the prosecutors in that country. And there is also no guarantee that Sweden won’t hand him over to the Americans. Australia should get involved in persuading the United Kingdom Julian Assange should be given safe passage to the airport and as I say he either goes to Quito Ecuador or he returns home to Australia.

Thank you very much.

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