Tuesday, 19 October 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Freedom of Speech
It is always good to see the Minister of State. I thank him for coming into the House. I raise the issue of the continuing incarceration of Julian Assange and ask for urgent action from the Irish Government on this issue and for it to speak out about it. Since 9/11 and the subsequent, and misnamed, war on terror, respect for international law by the US, NATO and other allied countries has virtually collapsed. That has led to the most horrific war crimes and abuses being committed. Sadly, Ireland is implicated in this situation because of our facilitation of the US military at Shannon Airport.
Mr. Assange has spent ten years incarcerated, first in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and then in solitary confinement for the past two years in Belmarsh Prison in the UK. Although a British court refused to extradite Mr. Assange due to fears that he would not survive the US penal system, that decision is now being challenged by the US Government. If the appeal succeeds, then Mr. Assange will face a sentence of 175 years in prison. He will likely spend that time in extreme isolation. This is clearly a politically motivated case, taken simply because Mr. Assange exposed US military and other war crimes, human rights abuses and corruption in the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The documents released by WikiLeaks were published widely by mainstream media outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Mondeand many others. First came revelations of the breaches of international law at Guantanamo Bay and then the collateral murder video, which recorded US pilots in an Apache helicopter gleefully slaughtering 18 innocent Iraqi civilians. In co-ordination with international media organisations, Mr. Assange followed those revelations with the Afghan war diaries and the Iraq war diaries, which exposed major war crimes committed by US forces and their allies.
Mr. Assange is, in effect, a political prisoner. His continued incarceration and threatened extradition to the US, therefore, is not just a threat to him personally but to all journalists, editors and publishers and the cause of investigative journalism, press freedom and freedom of speech generally. It is ironic that western countries, which claim to be defenders of freedom, are acting in this way. In fairness to the Government, in recent times the Minister for Foreign Affairs has been very outspoken on both the failures of international policies and the very clear abuse of power shown by nations, in particular in respect of journalists and political opponents. Recently the Minister condemned the incarceration of Alexei Navalny in Russia. He also spoke out about the Ryanair flight that was in effect hijacked over Belarus to detain Roman Protasevich, a journalist who was outspoken against the Belarusian Government. Even more recently the Minister outlined his views on the catastrophic failures in US foreign policies in Afghanistan. It was those failures of American policymakers that Julian Assange helped to highlight and let the world know about. He is an outstanding journalist and a credit to the work he has done. He should be treated as such and should not be held in captivity any more. He should be released immediately. Ireland now has a very strong voice in our position on the UN Security Council. It is time we used that for the common good and spoke up for Julian Assange.
Mr. Assange has suffered enough simply because he exposed through his journalism extensive government deceit, corruption, war crimes, state-sponsored killings, extraordinary rendition, military cover-ups of unlawful killings and, ultimately, the true wholesale horror of the disastrous, futile wars led by the US and British Governments. It is time for us to speak out. We cannot pick and choose which human rights issues we wish to speak out about. If we believe in freedom of speech, it must apply to Julian Assange as well as others.
I thank Senator Gavan for raising this matter, which has been the subject of much media comment in recent years. My colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has informed me that officials of his Department are following the case of Mr. Julian Assange. Mr. Assange, an Australian citizen and the public face of the Wikileaks website, was arrested by British police in London in April 2019 after he left the Embassy of the Republic of Ecuador because the asylum that had been granted to him by Ecuador about seven years previously was withdrawn. He was initially jailed in May 2019 at Belmarsh Prison, London, for a breach of bail conditions. In September 2019 his remand status was changed from a serving prisoner to a person facing extradition. Mr. Assange is currently detained in the UK on an extradition request from the United States. In September 2020 he appeared before the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales for an extradition hearing. He faced a United States federal grand jury indictment. According to a US Department of Justice release of 24 June 2020, this indictment included charges of conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information, conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, seven counts of obtaining national defence information and nine counts of disclosure of national defence information.
On 4 January 2021, at Westminster Magistrates Court, the request of the United States for Mr. Assange's extradition was refused. The full text of this ruling can be found on the website of the Judiciary of England and Wales. I understand from press reports that the United States Government lodged an appeal against this ruling on 15 January 2021 and was given more time to submit detailed grounds for its appeal. Recent media coverage indicates that in August the UK High Court handed down a judgment that will allow the US Government to expand the grounds for this appeal. According to the press reports, Mr. Assange appeared at the hearing via video link from Belmarsh Prison.
The Minister considers this to be a legal matter within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom that appears to be subject to ongoing legal proceedings. The question of the next steps for Mr. Assange rests with the UK judicial authorities. As legal proceedings are under way on this matter in another jurisdiction, the Minister does not intend to comment on this case.
It is so disappointing. We have a seat on the UN Security Council yet the Minister of State says the Government will not comment on perhaps the biggest human rights case facing the western world. What a contrast with the situation in Belarus. That is a situation involving a legal case.That is a legal matter and the Government has no problem commenting on it. It has no problem commenting on legal proceedings in Russia but it will not offer a word of condemnation or stand for human rights when it comes to a man who has done more to expose war crimes than any other individual in my lifetime. The Minister of State is here to say there is nothing to see here and he will not comment.
Where are the values of this Government? How can this be acceptable in the face of the horrendous plight of Mr. Julian Assange? We all know why this is happening. The US wants to send a message to the world that if anybody tells the world what it does, this is the treatment that will be meted out. This is the punishment that will be received. We can see that happening to Julian but the Minister of State is here saying he has no comment. It is appalling.
I thank the Senator and have taken note of his remarks on the matter, specifically those on our seat at the United Nations Security Council and what is, effectively, a difference of opinion on matters related to Belarus and Russia. I will bring them back to the Minister. This is a legal matter within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom and it appears to be the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, as I have already explained. The next steps in what happens to Mr. Assange rest with the UK judicial authorities. Again, as legal proceedings are under way with this matter in another jurisdiction, it is very difficult for us to comment on it. I will bring the Senator's views and concerns back to the Minister and I hope we can get a reply from the Department.