AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
SYDNEY: Australia confirmed that its diplomatic post in Washington had been preparing for Julian Assange's possible extradition to the US but played it down as "contingency planning".
Trade Minister Craig Emerson on Saturday said the Australian embassy in Washington had been "getting prepared for the possibility of an extradition" but stressed that there was nothing unusual in diplomats bracing for all eventualities.
"The embassy is doing its job, just to be in a position to advise the government if it believed that an extradition effort was imminent. There is no evidence of such an extradition effort," Emerson told ABC television.
"All that was happening is that the post in Washington was doing some contingency planning in the event that such an eventuality arose."
The remarks follow media reports Saturday that Australian diplomats believe Washington is targeting Assange for possible prosecution on charges including espionage and conspiracy relating to his WikiLeaks whistleblowing site.
Citing diplomatic cables from Australian officials obtained under freedom of information laws, The Age newspaper said Canberra's post in Washington was taking seriously the possible extradition of the WikiLeaks founder to the US.
According to The Age the cables showed that Australia had no objection to Assange's potential extradition and had requested early advice from the US on any decision to indict the former hacker or have him sent to the US.
It claimed that both the prime minister and foreign minister had been briefed on the matter.
Emerson confirmed that the Washington embassy had been exploring the extradition of Assange, an Australian national, as a potential scenario but he stressed that there was no evidence that the US was preparing to do so.
"You would want, as an embassy, to be in a position that if this were to arise hypothetically in the future, you wouldn't be standing flat-footed and unable to provide advice back to the government in Canberra," he said.
"I wouldn't read too much into it. People can attach their own probabilities or possibilities as to what the United States may or may not do in the future, but the fact is that there's no evidence, no evidence that the United States is seeking to extradite Julian Assange."
The trade minister noted that the US could have sought Assange's extradition from Britain rather than waiting for him to arrive in Sweden and "obviously they haven't done that".
He wouldn't comment on the claim that Australia would not oppose Assange's extradition to the US, saying only that they would abide by "normal processes" and continue providing consular assistance.
Emerson also repeated that there was little the Australian government could do for Assange, who is holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questions over sex assault claims.
Assange fears Stockholm will turn him over to the US, and was granted political asylum by Ecuador on Thursday.
"Remember that this issue about Mr Assange between the UK and Sweden is not in relation to WikiLeaks, it's in relation to allegations of something that he may or may not have done in Sweden itself and that's up to the legal authorities in those countries," Emerson said.
"The legal processes have been followed, and... there's no particular role for Australia beyond ensuring that Mr Assange has reasonable consular assistance and that's what we're offering."