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Julian Assange’s family is working out of the United States to fight his extradition, beseeching lawmakers there for help ahead of a looming meeting between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Joe Biden.
They live in fear that their phones will light up with news that the WikiLeaks founder is about to be whisked from detention in the United Kingdom to a US prison – where they will lose him forever.
Gabriel Shipton addresses the media in Canberra. Credit: Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
This heightened anxiety is fuelling their efforts to campaign for Assange’s release. They are meeting with key Democrats and Republicans, seeking the support of international leaders and drumming up public support to end the 13-year saga over his fate.
Speaking to The Sunday Age, Assange’s half-brother Gabriel Shipton said there were reasons to believe the long-running battle over his extradition could end without him sitting in a US prison.
Albanese’s US trip this month – during which he will meet with Biden – marks a key moment in their campaign.
Shipton said the ongoing uncertainty of Assange’s fate was taking a toll on everyone involved, recalling what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges told him about families of prisoners.
“It’s almost like they’re all in prison,” he said.
John Shipton, Julian Assange’s father, and Gabriel Shipton (left) outside the British consulate in New York last year.Credit: Robert Bumsted
“They’re all working to support that family member who is in prison and keeping them going.
“Whether it’s advocacy, whether it’s being in touch with him on the telephone or going to visit him. We’re all working to free Julian and to keep him alive, essentially.”
In 2019, United Nations special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer said Assange had been exposed to prolonged psychological torture while being detained. The UK government disagreed with several of Melzer’s findings and said it did not engage in torture as a practice.
Julian Assange in 2017. Credit: AP
Shipton said the psychological effects on Assange were evident to those who talked to him.
“He knows exactly what’s in store for him and that’s why the doctors say that he’d rather die than face prison in the US,” he said.
“Over the years if you go and visit him, you can see the deterioration in him personally and physically.
“It is his fifth year in prison now … He’s been held there solely at the request of the US regarding this extradition. It’s this sort of endless, endless punishment that’s just wearing him down.”
Shipton said the image of Assange in a US prison with poor conditions also weighed heavily on everyone campaigning for his release, including fears they may never see him again.
“That’s what we’re very fearful of. That he’s taken there, and he’s just lost to us,” he said.
“At the moment, the prison conditions are really bad, but he has a visit every week with his kids and his wife. He has a phone call.
“That’s his lifeline, that’s what’s keeping him going. That’s his connection to the outside world and if he’s extradited and that’s taken away from him, then I don’t know how he will be able to keep fighting and be able to survive.”
John Shipton, father of Assange and Gabriel, has been campaigning across Latin America and North America to encourage Washington’s allies to put pressure on the US government to drop the espionage charges against his son.
Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called for Assange’s release when speaking to the United Nations in September.
A full-page advertisement, signed by 64 Australian parliamentarians, calling for an end to Assange’s prosecution and incarceration, appeared in the Washington Post on September 19.
Gabriel Shipton said he had been meeting with politicians across the US political divide.
He said he believed that there was an expectation from the Australian public that Albanese would discuss Assange when he is in Washington from October 23.
In August, US ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy flagged a potential plea deal between Assange and US authorities that could end America’s pursuit and allow him to return to Australia.
Shipton said Assange would likely be open to such a deal.
“As principled as you are, at some stage you just want to go home to your family. If somebody’s holding the key to your cell and says you can leave, you can go home to your family, be with your kids, go out and see some sunshine or touch grass again. Would you say no?
“It is hard to understand how long Julian’s actually been detained. One of the changes that we deal with in our day-to-day lives, like self-checkout at the supermarket. Julian’s never seen that.”
Independent Kooyong MP Monique Ryan was one of six federal MPs who visited the US in a delegation last month to discuss Assange’s case with lawmakers.
US Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green (front) meets with Labor MP Tony Zappia, former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, teal independent Monique Ryan, Liberals’ Alex Antic, and Greens senators David Shoebridge and Peter Whish-Wilson.Credit: X
The bipartisan group also included former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, Liberal senator Alex Antic, Labor MP Tony Zappia and Greens senators Peter Whish-Wilson and David Shoebridge.
Ryan said many of the politicians they spoke to didn’t realise Australians felt strongly about Assange’s release.
“They thought that either we didn’t care or some of them thought the issue had been resolved long ago,” she said.
“Pretty much everyone that we spoke with agreed that they thought it was a reasonable thing to take action on, and that they would help us.
“We’re in the process of entering into a hugely significant, long-term relationship with the commitment to AUKUS. This could be a potential irritant, the significance of which could increase over time if the situation doesn’t get resolved.
“We said to them don’t let this one individual issue get in the way of what is has been a very productive long-term relationship.”
When asked if he would discuss Assange’s case with Biden, Albanese’s office referred to the prime minister’s previous statements.
In May, Albanese told the ABC that he would not detail private discussions with leaders but said he had made his views clear to the US administration.
“A solution needs to be found that brings this matter to a conclusion and Mr Assange needs to be a part of that, of course, and so I’m hopeful that that will occur,” he said.
“It has been too long and in my view, as I’ve said before, I see nothing is served from the further incarceration of Mr Assange.”
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