Legal experts have rejected the idea that Julian Assange could be prosecuted under Australian law.
Assange, a 39 year-old Australian citizen originally from Queensland, is the founder of the website WikiLeaks. The website has progressively been leaking the more than 250,000 diplomatic communiqués and transcripts of correspondence between international embassies and governments it has in its possession over the last week.
Despite WikiLeaks being based in Europe, Attorney-General Robert McClelland has set up a whole-of-government task force, which includes members of the Federal Police force, to determine whether Assange can be charged with any offences.
At a doorstop interview at Parliament House on Monday, McClelland said that the publication of documents by the WikiLeaks website "could be damaging to the national security interests of the United States and its allies, including Australia."
"So obviously Australia will support any law enforcement action that might be taken," McClelland said. "The United States government will be the lead government in that respect, but certainly Australian agencies will assist and look at - of course, I'd ask the Australian Federal Police to look at the issue as to whether any Australian laws have been breached as a specific issue as well."
Greg Barns, a barrister and director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, poured scorn on the idea that Assange could be charged as a result of investigations from the taskforce. He told Lawyers Weekly that the Australian government is motivated by politics and that to charge Assange would represent a danger to the ideas of democracy and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
"This is a compete waste of the AFP's time," Barns said. "All McClelland is doing is barking to the tune of his American counterpart, and seeking to cuddle up to Australia's closest ally."
Barns said that it would "be a stretch" to charge Assange for alleged breaches in terms of possible charges under anti-terrorism laws and the National Security Information Act.
"The fact that any government would be embarrassed by the publication of information doesn't make it an offence to publish it," he said. "The only information released regarding Australia thus far has been in relation to its relatively modest role in the world, it certainly hasn't compromised or involved important national security issues."
Professor George Williams, an anti-terrorism expert from the University of New South Wales, agrees with Barns that there are few avenues the Australian government could take to charge Assange.
"I don't know what they could charge him with," he said. "If they are looking to charge him under anti-terrorism laws, it would be hard to do, as he has not committed any terrorist act."
Barns and Williams conceded that the Attorney-General and the government had more discretion when it comes to revoking his Australian passport, but that there would need to be a sound legal basis for doing so.
"There are no reasonable grounds to cancel Assange's passport on the basis that he runs a website that is a repository for leaking sensitive information," Barns said. "Politicians, their staffers and journalists all leak sensitive information from time to time to discredit opponents or for other reasons.
"Will McClelland take their passports as well?"
On Wednesday (1 December), Interpol announced that it had agreed to a request from Swedish authorities to alert member states to arrest Assange on allegations of rape and sexual molestation.
McClelland told Melbourne radio station 3AW yesterday that if Assange was found to be in Australia, local law authorities would seek advice from Swedish authorities as to whether they would seek his extradition to face those charges.
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