Assange seeks US legal guarantee

JULIAN ASSANGE: 'He is under a lot of stress'
JULIAN ASSANGE: 'He is under a lot of stress'

Julian Assange hopes his bid for political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London will elicit diplomatic guarantees that he will not be prosecuted by the United States on espionage and conspiracy charges.

However, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr yesterday renewed his government's strong criticism of WikiLeaks and indicated support for Assange will remain limited to routine consular assistance in the absence of confirmation of US extradition moves.

In an interview with The Age Assange argued that his circumstances were "a serious political matter ... [that] the Australian Government should treat with the seriousness it requires."

"I have been attacked by the US, from the Vice-President down, as a high-tech terrorist, and by the Swedish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister - surely that requires some direct response from the Gillard government."

Assange acknowledged that if granted political asylum, he could still be unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy without risk of immediate arrest and extradition to Sweden to face questioning about sexual assault allegations.

Assange, who recently failed to persuade the British Supreme Court to reopen his appeal against extradition to Sweden, fears a hostile political climate in Stockholm will assist in his ultimate extradition to the US in retaliation for WikiLeaks' publication of secret US military and diplomatic documents.

 He has repeatedly said he is prepared to be questioned in Sweden if there were guarantees he will not then be extradited to the US.

"Ultimately it may be a matter of what guarantees the United Kingdom, the United States and Sweden are willing to provide," Assange said.

"For example, if the US were to guarantee [it would] drop the grand jury investigation and any further investigation of WikiLeaks publishing activity, that would be an important guarantee ... diplomatic commitments do have some weight."

Ecuador is considering Assange's asylum application made when he presented himself at the Latin American country's London embassy last week.

The Ecuadorian ambassador in London has been recalled for consultations and President Rafael Correa has indicated his government will consult other governments.

Assange told The Age he was present when the Ecuadorian ambassador was telephoned by the high commission and that "the Australians had nothing of substance to say - [it was] just an information-gathering exercise." "

Foreign Minister Carr told the ABC Insiders programme yesterday that he had received no indication from discussions with two unnamed American officials that the US intends to seek  Assange's extradition.

"There is not the remotest evidence that is the case," he said.

Senator Carr added that US officials "haven't been able to rule out that one corner of the American administration is considering [extradition], but I would expect the US wouldn't want to touch this."

Diplomatic cables released under freedom of information legislation show that in December 2010 the Australian embassy in Washington reported to Canberra that WikiLeaks was the target of an ''unprecedented'' US criminal investigation focussed on possible espionage charges.

Carr said yesterday that the government would make representations in Washington if it appeared the US was moving to extradite Assange.

''That would be a position we'd take when we heard that the US had the remotest interest in touching him. They know we're concerned about it,'' he said.

Senator Carr renewed the government's criticism of WikiLeaks, saying "releasing a whole batch of secret material without assessment and without justification raises profound moral questions."

"There's an amorality about what's been at work here - secrets being released for the sake of being released without inherent justification. But, that said, we will take a position to defend an Australian citizen if faced with an extradition request that hasn't got justification."

Assange observed that it was "fascinating to note that the government is at odds with popular opinion; it's not acting in its electoral interests - which makes one wonder what interests it's really serving."

- The Age