Morning mail: Assange rape case, mystery prisoner, South Australia bushfire threat

Richard Parkin
Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Good morning, this is Richard Parkin bringing you the main stories and must-reads on Wednesday 20 November.

Top stories

Swedish authorities have dropped their rape investigation against Julian Assange, noting that the complainant’s evidence was deemed credible and reliable, but that after nearly a decade witnesses’ memories may have faded. After a comprehensive assessment the case against Assange was deemed “not strong enough to form the basis for filing an indictment”, but the Swedish attorney general could yet appeal. The WikiLeaks founder, who is still battling extradition to the US, has been facing possible charges in Sweden since 2010.

The author who triggered a stunning police crackdown on a mystery prisoner in a Canberra jail has hit out at the secrecy surrounding the man’s imprisonment. A former military intelligence officer was prosecuted, convicted and jailed in the ACT last year, in a process hidden from public scrutiny. The author, Robert Macklin, attempted to publish the man’s memoirs on his time in prison, which sparked police raids of the inmate’s cell and his brother’s home. “I didn’t think we had secret trials in Australia,” Macklin said. “It worries me that we do.” The former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope compared the case to those prosecuted under totalitarian regimes, saying “not even the media was aware that this trial had occurred”.

Food delivery bike couriers are being underpaid by up to $322 a week, according to figures from union researchers, compared with minimum rates of pay and superannuation in the transport award. A survey of more than 240 riders revealed that almost all had no minimum rates of pay, and were paid per delivery on a “take-it-or-leave-it” basis. As independent contractors, riders for companies like Deliveroo are not paid the award minimum wage, and miss out on weekend penalty rates and superannuation. An unfair dismissal case before the Fair Work Commission began on Monday seeking to prove that Uber Eats drivers are in fact employees.

Australia

Kevin King and Timothy Weeks while kept hostage by Taliban insurgents Photograph: Social Media/Reuters

The Australian hostage Timothy Weeks and his US colleague Kevin King have finally been released by the Taliban, a week after a prisoner exchange was aborted for unknown reasons. Weeks, a 50-year-old teacher, spent more than three years in captivity.

Catastrophic fire danger conditions have been declared for much of South Australia for Wednesday, with more than 100 schools closed and at-risk residents told to leave their homes. The Bureau of Meteorology has forecast a maximum 42C for Adelaide, while the mercury is expected to reach 45C in other parts of the state.

The NSW police watchdog will investigate more officers over the strip-search of minors, with public hearings set for December after “several young people” were strip-searched at an under-18s event in Sydney this year.

Scott Morrison is set to announce a $3.8bn infrastructure stimulus package, after calls from the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund for governments to provide fiscal stimulus amid global economic uncertainty.

The world

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman leaves the hearing room during a break from testifying. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a key witness in the Trump impeachment inquiry, has said he reported the president’s “improper” telephone call with the Ukrainian president immediately, slamming character attacks on those testifying as “reprehensible” and “vile”.

Two prison guards have been indicted for failing to check on Jeffrey Epstein on the night he died in a New York jail cell, with prosecutors alleging the duo “sat at their desk, browsed the internet” instead.

One of Spain’s biggest corruption trials has found two former socialist presidents guilty of misconduct and misuse of public funds after €680m was handed out fraudulently through a “totally opaque grants system”.

Malta’s prime minister has announced a potentially significant breakthrough in the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia after a suspected plea deal by one of the middlemen involved in the high-profile anti-corruption journalist’s bombing.

An increasingly dangerous climate mechanism in the Indian Ocean is being “supercharged” by global heating, with Australian bushfires and African floods a result of the phenomenon, similar to El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific.

Recommended reads

After seven seasons as Lorna Morello in the hit series Orange Is the New Black, Yael Stone is back in Australia. It’s been a big year for the actor – she’s become a mother, spoken out against Geoffrey Rush and been swept up in the #MeToo movement, and started studying sustainability. From the “unhealthy horseshit” of Instagram, to the importance of Safe Theatres, Stone talks to Brigid Delaney about growing up, being “more like me” and rejecting being considered as “anybody’s plaything”.

Fewer than one in five Australians want to see Donald Trump re-elected as president. So why does Scott Morrison risk alienating voters by stridently defending the divisive statesman? “However debased America’s polity may currently be, the other powers to which we might turn for sponsorship in an increasingly unstable world are openly authoritarian,” Jason Wilson writes. But would the relationship suffer significantly if Australia’s leaders adopted a less enthusiastic posture? Trump’s “entire personal history suggests that he is unlikely to be meaningfully grateful for any loyalty shown him”.

Listen

It was a scheme designed to boost “jobs and growth” in rural Australia – but after a series of scandals, questions are being asked over the management of $220m allocated to the regional jobs and investment program. In this episode of Full Story, Laura Murphy-Oates speaks to Guardian Australia’s chief political correspondent, Sarah Martin, about where the money has gone.

Sport

Richie Benaud in 1969. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Like the flipper he bowled so handsomely, Richie Benaud had listeners in the palm of his hand. In an extract from his new book, Ashley Mallett recalls a tour to apartheid-era South Africa that spoke volumes about the man Benaud was.

Tottenham have stunned the Premier League by sacking their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, after a disappointing run of results which have left the club 14th in the table.

At a lunch in Fiji, Samu Kerevi quipped that he might play for Fiji at the next World Cup. It was a joke, but it raises questions over rugby’s eligibility laws, given that the Wallabies centre is ineligible for Australia for the next three years, says Bret Harris.

Media roundup

Aerial footage shows police got within metres of the man who ran down pedestrians at Bourke Street mall in 2017, but were unable to safely stop his vehicle before the attack, the Herald Sun reports. The renegade conservative politician Cory Bernardi has announced he is quitting federal politics, writes the Adelaide Advertiser, with an accompanying poll split between whether South Australians considered him “a destructive and dangerous right-wing ideologue” or “a brave politician of conviction and principle”. And Western Australia is set for an $868m roads investment under Scott Morrison’s new infrastructure stimulus, the West Australian reports.

Coming up

The attorney general, Christian Porter, will address the National Press Club in Canberra.

The Business Council of Australia will hold its annual dinner in Sydney, where Scott Morrison will be the keynote speaker.

And if you’ve read this far …

A four-note jingle heard on a French train is at the centre of a legal dispute between Pink Floyd’s guitarist, David Gilmour, and its composer. Michaël Boumendil thought at first a request to use the sequence was a prank but then it all got very serious.

Sign up

If you would like to receive the Guardian Australia morning mail to your email inbox every weekday, sign up here.