2012-06-02 Senator Ludlam confronts DFAT over plans to extradite Julian Assange to the US

On the 30th May 2012, Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam raised concerns over Julian Assange's looming extradition to the US before Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The response he obtained regarding the protection of Julian Assange's rights as an Australian citizen (fully transcribed here) was quite vague and evasive.

In particular, DFAT made efforts to avoid stating clearly whether it has sought evidence pertaining to the existence of a sealed indictment against Julian Assange, issued by a US Grand Jury that has been investigating WikiLeaks for over 600 days. This indictment was mentioned by US intelligence firm Stratfor in private email exchanges, which were published by WikiLeaks in February as part of its Global Intelligence Files release and where members of the private contractor discuss the intent to undermine WikiLeaks' publishing activities by cutting off its donations and keeping its editor-in-chief Julian Assange involved in legal processes of indefinite duration ("Move him from country to country to face various charges for the next 25 years", one of the emails read.)

Although DFAT minders have attended Julian Assange's extradition court hearings for a year, no advice, information or consular assistance has been provided to him to this day. In fact, the DFAT has refrained from communicating with Julian Assange during these occasions.
A statement released by WikiLeaks through its twitter account points out that any DFAT requests for information on plans to extradite Julian Assange to the US were done with the explicit purpose of obtaining information ahead of the media, and with the intent to manipulate public opinion.

Through documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request in Australia we know that the Australian Government keeps regular contact with the US concerning the investigation on WikiLeaks and plans to charge Julian Assange for conspiracy and espionage.
Other documentation on the subject was requested by Senator Ludlam and has been on hold for months as it is pending approval from the United States before eventual public release, Mr Rowe reveals in the following exchanges.

The discussion took place shortly before the UK Supreme Court dismissed Julian Assange's extradition appeal, allowing nevertheless for his legal team to submit an application to have the case reopened. Mr Assange's legal counsel Dinah Rose QC must do so before June 13.

A full transcript of the Estimates session quoted below is available here.


Senator LUDLAM: Okay, you did cover that. Minister, my question was whether you had been briefed, so I think we can take that as a yes—you have got relevant material right in front of you there. What can you tell us about the existence or otherwise of a sealed indictment issued by the United States Department of Justice, which would presumably come with an extradition order back to the United States?

Senator Bob Carr: We have seen no evidence that such a sealed indictment exists.

Senator LUDLAM: Have you sought such evidence?

Senator BOB CARR: We have not sought evidence, but we have seen no evidence that it exists.

Senator LUDLAM: Well, of course you haven't.

Mr Richardson: And we have talked to the US. The US is aware of our expectations in respect of due process, but when we say we have seen no evidence that such a sealed indictment exists we are not using neat bureaucratic words to avoid an answer. I know there are claims out there, but we are simply not aware of the existence of such an indictment. We have talked to the US about these matters, and we are simply not aware of the existence of such a sealed indictment.

Senator LUDLAM: Have you asked whether such a document exists, of your colleagues either in the DOJ or the state department?

Mr Richardson: We have had discussions, of which I cannot go into the detail, but none of the discussions we have had—

Senator LUDLAM: It is a pretty simple question: have you asked? You have seen rumours, you have seen speculation, you have seen reports. But did you ask?

Mr Richardson: As I said, we do not know of any evidence of the existence of such. We have obviously asked the US; we have talked about it. But we are not aware of any evidence that such a sealed indictment exists.

Senator LUDLAM: You are making it sound a bit forensic. I am just putting to you whether you have asked your colleagues whether such a document exists.

Mr Richardson: We have made inquiries about all of that.

Senator LUDLAM: What were the responses to those inquiries?

Mr Richardson: I am not prepared to go into the detail of the discussions we have had.

Senator LUDLAM: Why is that?

Mr Richardson: They were confidential. I can simply say that we are not aware of any sealed indictment and we are not aware of any evidence of the existence of a sealed indictment.

Senator LUDLAM: Mr Richardson—or Minister; if I stray into politics I will trust you to answer the question—were you aware of the release of quite an abundance of material from the US private security firm Stratfor, some months ago now, which contained explicit reference to such a document?

Mr Richardson: I am certainly aware of that. That was released, I think, out of Texas, from memory.

Senator LUDLAM: On the WikiLeaks website.

Mr Richardson: Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: Indeed. So did that release—you would not call it evidence, but it is certainly a release of material indicating that such a document exists—cause you to go back to your US colleagues and make inquiries?

Mr Richardson: It is release of material claiming the existence of it. We have talked to the United States since then, and I refer back to my earlier answers.


Senator LUDLAM: This is our great and powerful ally, the United States. Has your department done its due diligence so that we know what to expect tonight, depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court findings? Are you satisfied that the government has made itself aware of the facts?

Senator Bob Carr: I can answer that. We have no advice that the US has an intention to extradite Mr Assange.

Senator LUDLAM: Have you sought such advice?

Senator Bob Carr: We have discussed the case with the US, and nothing we have been told suggests that the US has such an intention. The US is aware of our expectation of due process, if they do decide to take legal action. And we understand that the United Kingdom's agreement to extradite would also be required. That probably answers your question.

Senator LUDLAM: While we are on the subject of due process, one of the other matters that came forward in the Stratfor releases was the intention by this private security firm that contracts to the United States government to shop Mr Assange and his colleagues through serial legal jurisdictions and tie him up in legal processes until the end of time, effectively. Whether he ends up in prison or not is kind of beside the point. Are you confident that due process is being followed in this case?

Senator Bob Carr: I do not think the US can be sheeted with the responsibility for the process underway in Sweden.

Senator LUDLAM: That was not actually the question I put to you.

Senator Bob Carr: You did talk about an intention of the US, as alleged by one source, to tie Mr Assange up in legal process.

Senator LUDLAM: It is a fairly informed source.


Senator LUDLAM: I am not sure that we can do that in here! I will be the one asking the questions, if that is all right. Minister, are you aware of the freedom of information request that I put to the department—and I acknowledge that it would have been before you took your place in here—on this matter? I think it was in November or December, or thereabouts, last year.

Senator Bob Carr: I am aware in broad terms, yes, that there is an FOI request.

Senator LUDLAM: Have you availed yourself of any information on that request, which has been delayed over a series of months?

Senator Bob Carr: I think I have signed a piece of paper related to that request. I will get advice.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Perhaps you could get advice on the nature of the piece of paper you have signed, and whether or not any documents will be forthcoming. I know it is extremely labour intensive blacking out page after page after page, but I would have thought that after six months it would be an appropriate time to put some of this material onto the public record.

Senator Bob Carr: We will check the record and answer the question to your satisfaction.

Mr Rowe: As you mentioned, Senator, we have your request under the FOI provisions to provide information in relation to a number of matters—including, of course, the Assange issue. As you would be aware, this is a very complex and very large request. As with previous requests in relation to other matters we have been in contact with you about the scope and the time lines for that request. We are actually engaged in processing it as expeditiously as we can. But these are very large requests in terms of the documentation, the complexities and the need to consult, under the FOI regime, third parties where necessary. Not surprisingly, it is taking some time just to work through all the documentation and get the request finalised so that we can provide it to you.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. And the matters that I am seeking to have released under this government's new regime of transparency do relate to foreign policy matters, particularly our diplomatic relationship with the United States. Is it normal practice that you would seek advice from your US colleagues before releasing that material into the public domain? Is the US government clearing this material for release as well as your own department?

Mr Rowe: Under the Freedom of Information Act, as you are aware, there are provisions that we are obliged to take account of, particularly that relating to any material that relates, as I said, to a third party. In that regard it is normal practice to consult the third party about the content and the sensitivity or releasability of particular information. We are applying the act in that regard.

Senator LUDLAM: Is that kind of a yes?

Mr Rowe: Yes. We need to do that and we have the statutory obligation to take that consultation process fully into account.

Senator LUDLAM: Would the material that you are subsequently, I hope, going to release to me, to the parliament and to the public, all have been cleared by the United States government as well as the Australian government?

Mr Rowe: Not all cleared. It is where there is material such as particular communications between the Australian government and a third party, for example. Where that third party is involved in the material or it relates to that third party, we have the obligation to consult that party.

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