Australian Senate no legal haven for Wikileaks boss

Reuters News

3/27/2012 3:34:15 AM - Reuters News

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A seat in Australia's parliament for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange would do nothing to protect him from his legal battles in Britain and Sweden, or any potential legal fight over leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, an expert on parliament said on Tuesday.

Assange wants to run for the upper house Senate in Australia, and told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Tuesday that he would use the protection of parliament to champion free speech and break court suppression orders.

"It is not as simple as he thinks," former clerk of the Senate Harry Evans, who is regarded as the leading expert on the privileges and protection of parliament, told Reuters.

Assange is under house arrest in Britain where he is fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning over accusations of sexual assault. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Assange burst into global prominence in 2010 when his Wikileaks group released secret footage, military files and diplomatic cables about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prompting a furious response from the United States.

The next Australian election is due in the second half of 2013, and Assange would only take a seat from July 2014 if he succeeds. He would need to attract about 15 percent of the vote in an Australian state to win a seat.

If he wins a Senate seat, he would be covered by Australia's parliamentary privilege rules, which protect politicians against legal action over comments made in parliament.

Evans said Assange would be unable to table leaked cables without support from a majority of Senators, which would be unlikely. He would also be unable to make comments in parliament which would interfere with a court case.

Being a Senator would also offer no legal protection for any actions that happened before Assange entered parliament, or for any actions outside of parliament. That means tabling material already made public would offer no real legal protection.

"He's only covered for what he says inside of parliament," Evans said. "In a normal criminal case, there is no immunity."

(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Robert Birsel)