The Disease of Detention

Julian Assange’s Thousand Days

Police states quaffing the blood of victims have an excuse: they wish to oppress in order to justify the status quo, keeping the fires burning, their subjects scared.  They deceive because they know that truth is another country.  States that possess some constitutional worth, those that front a democratic chamber, elected by an enfranchised electorate prefer more subtle techniques, resorting to indefinite detention, without charge.

The breakdown of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s confinement for 1000 days reads as a resume on how authorities can dilute legal obligations with corrosive effect.  10 days were spent in solitary confinement in Wandsworth prison; 550 days were spent under house arrest; and 440 days have been spent at the Ecuadorean embassy in London being denied or guaranteed safe passage by the United Kingdom.

In June 2012, Friends of WikiLeaks sent an open letter to the European Court of Human Rights detailing their concerns about the Swedish request that Assange be extradited for questioning over alleged sex offences.  “For a man who has not been charged with any crime, we consider this arbitrary and unlawful detention and thus a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights  which the ECHR claims to uphold.”

The thrust of the argument is simple and terrifying.  Complying with the European Arrest Warrant in this instance would “make it possible for every citizen detained in the EU to be extradited to another country without charge or any evidence against them, which we consider a more than distressing development.”

This is one of the great obscenities of the age, fed by complacency, justified by indifference.  And it is a continuing one.  A thousand days without charge is a bilious stain.  A thousand days hounded, encircled and monitored by a collective of state interests keen to see him vanquished by silence and incarceration. But Assange knows better. He keeps busy. He teases and can even charm.  He conquers through correspondence and Skype, and emits the light of reform via assistance to other whistleblowers.

Naturally, the riposte here is that there is no detention as such – he has been granted sanctuary by Ecuador, albeit within the confines of the embassy.  But Assange is much like some of the Palestinian territories, encircled and embargoed when state emergency warrants it. It is an intolerable deadlock made worse by the ineffectual paladins in Canberra who insist that the welfare of its citizens is up to other states.

What the Australian government has, in fact, done is show that individuals in Assange’s circumstances may well be faced with an extradition order even on returning to Australia.  According to Assange himself, speaking to Headley Gritter on Melbourne’s 3RRR, “Australia changed its Extradition Act just over a year ago to make it easier to extradite Australians to the United States for so-called political crimes.”

Far from being fanciful, a reading of amendments made to the Extradition Act 1988 (Cth) shows that tinkering has been made to lower the threshold for which extradition might be sought.  These had been in the pipeline for some time and demonstrate the delight officials in Canberra take in allowing foreign powers to have a bite of the Australian cherry. After all, the amending instrument’s purpose was aimed at “streamlining the extradition process and cutting delays.”  Rights of citizens have evidently become matters of slimming, streaming and reduction, a weight loss program for aspiring police states.

The amending culprit was the Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Amendment Bill 2011.  Long winded in title, it promises to be blunt in effect.  Political consciousness in Australia has been so narcotised by the security establishment that any discussion about the implications of the bill passed without comment.  A moribund fifth estate helped in this.

Yes, section 7 makes a bland reference that individuals will not be extradited for “political offences,” suggesting that Assange might have misread the scope of the provision.  But everything hinges on a definition.

The devil lurks in the exclusions for what a “political offence” is. Excluded from it are offences “that involve an act of violence against a person’s life or liberty” or “any offence prescribed by regulations…”  This gives government officials extensive room to manoeuvre over what matters “political” might or might not be.  Take the issue of “terrorist” offences, which are often a confection of government to nab protesters deemed enemies of the state.  One person’s revealing publisher is another’s nosy terrorist.

Persons may be extradited for minor offences, punishable by less than 12 months imprisonment.   The Attorney-General is entitled to surrender the person if he or she considers there is no “real risk” of execution occurring.  Previously, the threshold had been more onerous, making the AG take into account the likelihood of the person’s trial, conviction and sentence to death.

Assange’s confinement can also be seen in a broader sense, the disease rendered acceptable by authorities who have decided to throw away the law book in the name of law.  The sheer fury against those who expose the rules of the game, be it the killing game (Collateral Murder), or the spying game (PRISM, Tempora) demands stern retribution.  Those keen to breathe some life into the cadaverous body of democracy have become prominent targets.

In February, then Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s 1001 day detention was ruled as being “reasonable” by Judge Colonel Denise Lind.  No constitutional rights had been violated.  The case had been “uniquely complex”.  Thus, extensive detention was given its legal gloss.

Assange’s confinement is the guide book authorities are now using in a global effort to stifle the business of publication and whistleblowing.  The modern, pseudo-democratic state understands that the murderous gulag is less attractive than indefinite detention in circumstances that break the will for punitive purpose.  It is that new political entity that requires speedy reform, if not wholesale abolition.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.