The slicked-back hair and castaway beard are long gone, but behind Julian Assange’s clean veneer lurks a deeply troubled man, independent MP Andrew Wilkie has said following his visit to the WikiLeaks founder.
The unlikely pair of Mr Wilkie and Liberal National MP George Christensen visited Assange in a London prison on February 18 to show their support for the Australian, whose US extradition hearing began on Monday.
“He’s had a haircut and he looked OK,” said Mr Wilkie, recalling Assange’s “wild” appearance at the time of his arrest at London’s Ecuadorian embassy on April 11.
“But from time to time you’d get a glimpse at a broken man.
“He was doing his best to put on a brave face, but I think it was theatre because every now and then he’d sink into quietness – he’d look down and close his eyes.
“Particularly when we were touching on things like his family, you could see he was really struggling.”
Assange would have plenty of reasons for that state of mind.
“Yesterday Mr Assange was handcuffed 11 times, he was stripped naked two times at Belmarsh, and was put in five separate holding cells,” his barrister told a court on Tuesday night (Australian time).
Assange has been in London’s Belmarsh prison for more than 10 months. He was jailed following his eviction from the embassy, where he had been granted asylum for seven years while avoiding facing sexual assault allegations in Sweden (that case has since been dropped).
Having served half of a 50-week prison term for skipping bail in Britain, Assange has remained in custody, pending the outcome of the extradition case.
Assange is being brought into the Woolwich Crown Court every day to hear whether he will be forced to go to the US to face espionage charges.
In the second day of his hearing, Edward Fitzgerald QC urged a judge to intervene over the treatment of his client, arguing it was inhumane.
During the afternoon’s proceedings Assange appeared to be drifting off, prompting the judge to direct a member of his legal team, Gareth Pierce, to check on him.
“Mr Assange is struggling, he’s finding it hard to concentrate, he can’t communicate with his legal team and he’s finding it very difficult,” Mr Pierce said.
Judge Vanessa Baraitser said she did not have the legal power to comment or rule on Assange’s prison conditions, but encouraged his legal team to formally bring the matter up with authorities.
“I think everyone in the court supports a fair hearing,” she said.
The US government accuses the Australian of 17 counts of espionage and one count of hacking.
He could face a prison sentence of up to 175 years if convicted.
On the opening day of the extradition hearing, as Assange supporters chanted for him outside court, US government-appointed lawyer James Lewis, called Assange an “ordinary criminal” and said journalism was “not an excuse for criminal activities or a licence to break ordinary criminal laws”.
For Mr Wilkie, however, the matter goes to the heart of free press laws, particularly in the US through its First Amendment of the Constitution.
“The more you learn, the clearer the absurdity is,” the 58-year-old Mr Wilkie said.
“The fact is, [Assange] acted in the public interest and did the right thing, both as a human being and as a journalist. The substantive matter is that he acted as a journalist.”
The US charges stem from WikiLeaks publishing classified US material in 2010 and 2011.
The material relates to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and included the infamous Apache helicopter footage that showed US forces killing multiple civilians, including journalists, in Baghdad in 2007 (it is understood the soldiers believed the people were holding weapons).
The prosecution also accuses Assange of conspiring with US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer, while acquiring the classified material.
At their meeting in the prison, which Mr Wilkie says was frustratingly complicated to arrange (and involved Assange’s London-based father John Shipton donating his allocated visiting time to the politicians), he and Mr Christensen discussed with Assange “how he was going, the circumstances of his incarceration”.
“Then we moved on to the trial,” Mr Wilkie said.
Is Assange confident he will be set free?
“No one’s optimistic, but no one’s given up hope,” Mr Wilkie said.
“To look at the facts, you would be supremely confident that no way would [a court] allow extradition.
“Then you take your rose-coloured glasses off and remind yourself how intensely political this matter is and how determined the US is. And how complicit the UK and even Australia has been.”
To that end, Mr Wilkie feels a solution should be worked out among the relevant leaders, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison making the call.
“Get on the phone and tell the US to back off,” said Mr Wilkie, who is the federal member for Clark in Tasmania.
“This is a political problem and it would be easily solved through a political resolution.
“Surely Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Scott Morrison should work this out between themselves.
“If they don’t, it will become a thorn in the side of the Attorney-General, just like [Australian convicted terrorist] David Hicks did.”
#JulianAssange's extradition is fundamentally about the freedom of the press and the freedom of a journalist to publish information in the public interest. #politas #auspol #NoUSExtradition pic.twitter.com/WNsREngGgz
— Andrew Wilkie MP (@WilkieMP) February 25, 2020
Indeed, some legal experts estimate the case and its inevitable appeals process (no matter who wins), could drag on for years, leaving Assange languishing in limbo.
“As George Christensen said, Julian may be a rogue or ratbag but he’s our rogue or ratbag, and he should be brought home,” Mr Wilkie said.
“A lot of people in Australia don’t like the man, but they also don’t like to see an Australian citizen being pushed around by other governments.”
The hearing continues.