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Assange is free, finally

Australian Prime Minister took credit for the deal, taking a dig at the journalists for not being able to spot that an agreement was in the making
07:03 AM Jun 29, 2024 IST | Vivek Katju
assange is free  finally

The Julian Assange saga, which began fourteen years ago and had gripped the world for a number of years, ended with a whimper on June 26. The Australian and the US governments succeeded in working out a deal which enabled Assange to become free and return to his native country, Australia.


Under the agreement he pleaded guilty, of publishing US military secrets, at a court in the American territory of the Northern Marianna Island in the South Pacific. The judge entered his guilty plea in the record and proclaimed him free by taking into consideration the five years he was in a British prison while legal proceedings relating to the US request for his extradition were on-going. It is obvious that the US did not want Assange to come to the US mainland.


Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke to the media after Assange reached Australia. He took credit for the deal, took a dig at the journalists for not being able to spot that an agreement was in the making. Clearly, what Albanese overlooked was that the Assange issue had fallen below the global radar; so, the media was not focused on it.


However, as all leaders do on such occasions Albanese took credit for Assange’s becoming free. He said “I had a very warm discussion with him this evening. He was very generous in his praise of the Australian government’s efforts.


The Australian government stands up for Australian citizens. That’s what we do”. It certainly took the Australian authorities a long time in coming to Assange’s help. Earlier they wanted nothing to do with him. But while this is comment on the way of governments, it is a digression from the main story.


Assange developed hacking skills as a youth. Along with a few friends he began hacking government and bank sites. It appears he did so not for financial gain but to reveal the seedy side of decision making and profit taking in these institutions. Naturally, he was a thorn in the side of the Australian authorities. He also began to gain recognition in sections of global anti-establishment circles. In 2006 he established the WikiLeaks company.


The company’s website begins with this brief paragraph “WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public. Since July 2007, we have worked across the globe to obtain, publish and defend such materials, and, also, to fight in the legal and political spheres for the broader principles on which our work is based: the integrity of our common historical record and the rights of all peoples to create new history”.


It is obvious that such a company would not be looked upon favourably by governments because of their genuine and bona-fide need to protect sensitive materials. This is not to be confused with their desire to protect material which puts them in a poor light because of wrong policies or corruption.

Many countries, including India, have laws which allow citizens to access information that can and should be shared for the public good. But such sharing of information cannot be extended to matters concerning security of states. Clearly, companies like WikiLeaks and persons like Assange consider such views as statist.

In 2010 -11 WikiLeaks went public with documents it had obtained of US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and a trove of over 2.5 lakhs of US diplomatic communications sent through electronic means. The latter are generally called cables or telegrams and many of them are sent encoded.

Naturally, the encoded communications are those containing information which a government does not want to be publicly disclosed. The WikiLeaks trove of US diplomatic communications was over a forty-four-year period, 1966-2010. Some of the world’s leading newspapers and journals carried selected cables.

None of the communications that were put out in the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables were of the highest classification. All governments take care to insulate their very sensitive material from that whose leaks would be embarrassing and even damage bilateral relations but would not lead impairing national security or cause irreparable diplomatic damage or lead to the deaths of a government’s ‘sources’. Sometimes, adversaries are able to breach security rings around such material but greater precaution is taken to protect such material than that which is of lower value.

The diplomatic world works on trust. Governments carry out their discussions with their counterparts on the basis that their exchanges will not be disclosed. Diplomats posted in different countries have conversations with officials and opinion-makers and report them to their headquarters. These too, if disclosed, can only damage the conduct of inter-state interaction. Hence, the diplomatic world was aghast when WikiLeaks cables came out.

And, fingers were pointed at the Americans. On its part Washington took action against the person who leaked the cables to Assange. But it wanted to get its hands on Assange too. Ecuador with its anti-American President gave him shelter in its London embassy. But then the Swedes filed rape charges against him and sought his extradition.

However, the shelter he got in the Ecuadorian embassy warded off the Swede legal challenge. Once the government changed in Quito, Ecuador sent him out of its Mission and he was arrested and the UK authorities signed his extradition warrant but the UK courts held it up. Hence, he continued in jail for over five years till his release now.

The question is whether Assange will resume to make WikiLeaks active again to cause diplomatic ripples.