It's been several years since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange left his native home in Australia. But he remains at the center of an intense national debate about his release of classified U.S. government documents. Assange, however, apparently enjoys more support in his home country than in the U.S.
"Hands off WikiLeaks," protesters shouted at a rally last month in Brisbane, the capital of Assange's home state of Queensland. Over the past couple of months, WikiLeaks supporters have protested in cities across Australia.
Local media have editorialized that Prime Minister Julia Gillard misjudged the degree of public support for Assange last month when she accused him of breaking U.S. and possibly Australian laws.
"Let's not put any glosses on this," Gillard said. "It would not happen, information would not be on WikiLeaks, if there had not been an illegal act undertaken."
Gillard backed down a bit when an Australian Federal Police investigation concluded that no Australian law had been broken.
But she insisted that Assange was in the wrong. "The release of all of this documentation has been grossly irresponsible, and I stand by the remarks I've made about this previously," Gillard said.
Gillard's words cost her some support among members of her ruling Labor Party. Some members felt that Gillard had unfairly prejudged Assange, and that whatever Assange had done, his legal rights as an Australian citizen should be upheld.
Lawmaker Sharon Grierson, who sits on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, sees the Assange case as a litmus test for freedom of speech and information.
"We're a government that's improved freedom of information, so it seems to me slightly hypocritical that we would make that judgment very quickly about information being released," Grierson said.
Robert Stary, Assange's Melbourne-based lawyer, thinks his client's defense should be pretty straightforward, because he considers Assange to be a journalist, protected by U.S. First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
But Stary is worried about some possibilities: "Our main concern is really the possible extradition to the U.S. We've been troubled by the sort of rhetoric that has come out of various commentators and principally Republican politicians — Sarah Palin and the like — saying Mr. Assange should be executed, assassinated."
On her Facebook page, Palin suggests that Assange should be "pursued with the same urgency as al-Qaida and Taliban leaders."
Anyone who incites others to commit violence against his client, even outside Australia, Stary says, is violating Australian law, and can be held accountable for it.
"Certainly if Sarah Palin or any of those other politicians come to Australia, for whatever purpose, then we can initiate a private prosecution, and that's what we intend to do," Stary said.
There is debate in the U.S. and elsewhere about whether Assange is indeed a journalist, as WikiLeaks lacks the clear editorial structure of more traditional media. But many Australian journalists consider Assange one of them.
"Julian Assange has been a member of our union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, for the past three or four years," said Louise Connor, secretary of the Victoria Branch of the union, the main body representing Australian journalists.
She said her union thinks WikiLeaks has acted in line with the union's code of journalistic ethics. Assange is certainly no more at fault than other traditional media who have also published the classified documents, she added.
"The material is clearly in the public interest," Connor said. "Other media organizations have also judged it to be in the public interest when they have published. He's not the only person that's publishing the information, but it seems to us that the rhetoric around him isn't being extended to other journalists."
U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that Australian officials, including Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, are far more demoralized by the state of affairs in Afghanistan than they let on in public.
Australia's 1,500 troops form the largest non-NATO foreign contingent in Afghanistan.
Assange's lawyer said most Australians actually support the alliance with the U.S.
"We see ourselves, albeit a junior partner, but an equal partner to the U.S.," Stary added. "We don't like the fact that we've been misled or that our politicians have a sycophantic or subservient attitude."
Stary said the alliance has become something of a sacred cow in Australia, and Assange is paying the price for shedding an unflattering light on it.