In open letter, 48 MPs and senators warn ‘closest strategic ally’ that pursuit of WikiLeaks founder ‘set a dangerous precedent’

Julian Assange is in custody at London’s Belmarsh prison as he fights a US attempt to extradite him to face charges in connection with the publication of leaked documents

Australian federal politicians from across the political spectrum have jointly asked the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, to abandon attempts to extradite Julian Assange from the UK.

The 48 MPs and senators – including 13 from the governing Labor party – warned that the pursuit of the WikiLeaks founder “set a dangerous precedent” for press freedom and would damage the reputation of the US.

Assange, an Australian citizen, remains in Belmarsh prison in London as he fights a US attempt to extradite him to face charges in connection with the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as diplomatic cables.

In an open letter published on Tuesday, the Labor, Coalition, Greens and crossbench politicians implored Garland to “drop the extradition proceedings and allow Mr Assange to return home”.

“If the extradition request is approved, Australians will witness the deportation of one of our citizens from one Aukus partner to another – our closest strategic ally – with Mr Assange facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison,” the letter said.

“This would set a dangerous precedent for all global citizens, journalists, publishers, media organizations and the freedom of the press. It would also be needlessly damaging for the US as a world leader on freedom of expression and the rule of law.”

The letter said the charges – which include 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – pertained to Assange’s actions “as a journalist and publisher” in publishing information “with evidence of war crimes, corruption and human rights abuses”.

The MPs and senators contrasted the ongoing pursuit of Assange with the case of the former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was released in 2017 when Barack Obama commuted her 35-year military prison sentence for leaking the information.

The letter said Assange – who initially took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London – “has been effectively incarcerated for well over a decade in one form or another, yet the person who leaked classified information had their sentence commuted and has been able to participate in American society since 2017”.

The independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who co-chairs the Parliamentary Friends of Julian Assange Group, initiated the letter. It coincides with the fourth anniversary of Assange being detained in Belmarsh prison.

Wilkie said the 48 Australian federal parliamentarians were acting “in concert with similar letters from parliamentarians from around the world” and together they represented millions of constituents.

“This is no small matter and must not be dismissed,” Wilkie said. “Nor should it be ignored that the outpouring of political concern spans the political spectrum and is based on a diverse range of reasons.”

Assange’s father, John Shipton, said his son had been living under “a pall of shame and disgrace”.

Shipton said the decision by the new Australian high commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith, to visit Belmarsh prison last week marked “the beginning of the end of this bleak, severe frost on truth and destruction of Julian Assange”.

Greg Barns SC, a legal adviser to the Assange campaign, said the US attempt to prosecute Assange was “dangerous” because it meant “any journalist or publisher anywhere in the world could face extradition to the US for exposing material Washington doesn’t want you to know about”.

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, warned late last month that there were limits to what diplomacy could achieve.

But she said Australia would continue to express the view to both the US and UK governments that the case against Assange “has dragged on long enough and should be brought to a close”.

The 13 Labor MPs to sign Tuesday’s letter were Michelle Ananda-Rajah, Mike Freelander, Julian Hill, Peter Khalil, Tania Lawrence, Zaneta Mascarenhas, Brian Mitchell, Alicia Payne, Graham Perrett, Susan Templeman, Maria Vamvakinou, Josh Wilson and Tony Zappia.

The highest profile Coalition signatories were the former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and the MP for Bass, Bridget Archer.

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, was joined by many of his party colleagues in signing it, while independent MPs and senators were also well represented.

Comment was sought from the US embassy in Canberra, but the White House has previously said Joe Biden was “committed to an independent Department of Justice” when asked about the Assange case.

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