Australian PM’s Assange Welcome Sparks Concern Over US Relations

(Bloomberg) -- Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has been accused of potentially undermining ties with key ally, the US, after he welcomed Julian Assange home with a personal phone call.

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Assange spoke to Albanese shortly after his plane touched down in Canberra on Wednesday night, the prime minister announced at a press conference. During the call, Assange told Albanese that he had “saved his life,” according to his wife Stella.

But on Thursday morning, Australia’s center-right opposition Liberal Party accused Albanese of risking US relations by calling Assange, with Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham saying it was wrong for him to be treated like a “homecoming hero.”

“There will be people across the US Congress and elsewhere who will think very poorly of Anthony Albanese’s decision to personally welcome home somebody, an Australian who on the same day had pleaded guilty to an espionage charge in the US,” he said. Former US Vice President Mike Pence was among those high profile American politicians critical of Assange’s plea deal.

Assange is yet to speak publicly following his return to Australia. Earlier on Wednesday, he walked out of a US district court in the Northern Mariana Islands a free man after pleading guilty to unlawfully obtaining and disclosing “classified documents relating to the national defense,” according to a statement from the US Justice Department.

The Australian was given a 62-month time-served sentence, granting him credit for the five years he spent in a high-security UK prison as he fought extradition to the US and allowing him to avoid additional jail time in America.

In a statement, US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy said Assange’s return brought “this longstanding and difficult case to a close.” “The US is grateful to the government of Australia for their commitment and assistance through this process,” she said.

After his return, Albanese compared Assange’s release to that of journalist Cheng Lei, who was detained in China for three years, and economist Sean Turnell, who was taken prisoner by Myanmar’s military government. The comparison raised eyebrows in the Australian opposition and among some experts.

Euan Graham, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said both Cheng and Turnell had been the victims of “arbitrary detention” by authoritarian governments. “They had no due process,” he said, adding the comparison with Assange was “muddying the waters to a rather concerning degree.”

Government and pro-Assange lawmakers dismissed suggestions that Albanese’s actions had potentially damaged the US relationship. Foreign Minister Penny Wong told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Assange’s release was an example of how close the relationship was between Washington and Canberra. “Our relationship with the US is deep and strong, and that is why we were able to advocate in the way we did,” she said on Thursday morning.

Independent lawmaker Andrew Wilkie said the Assange case had been a “thorn in the side” of Australia-US relations, and removing it would only improve ties. “The bilateral relationship between Canberra and Washington is as strong as it has ever been,” he said at a press conference on Thursday.

But Graham said although Assange was taking time away from the spotlight to recover, there was a high likelihood that he would eventually return to his previous activities. “The government may well regret the fact that they have been seen to legitimize him,” he said.

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