WikiLeaks has revealed it did not "know or approve" of its Australian political party's visit to Syria to meet Bashar al-Assad, amid criticism from both the government and Labor over the trip.
A WikiLeaks party delegation, reportedly including its founder Julian Assange's father, John Shipton, held talks with a number of high-ranking Syrian officials, with a picture released by the Syrian government of a meeting with the president himself.
Before the visit, the party stated it was going as part of its "peace and reconciliation" efforts, as well as warning over the dangers of Western intervention into the bloody three-year Syrian civil war. Shipton said he wanted to show "solidarity"with the Syrian people and told a local TV station that WikiLeaks would be opening an office in Damascus this year.
But WikiLeaks has distanced itself from the trip, saying via Twitter that while peace brokering is a "good idea", it "did not know or approve" of the delegation's visit to Syria.
Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign affairs minister, said Syria was not a place for "political parties to pursue their political ends".
"I find it extraordinarily reckless that an organisation registered as a political party in Australia would seek to insert itself into the conflict in Syria and engage with a leader accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including using chemical weapons against his own people," Bishop told The Australian newspaper.
"Their actions could be interpreted as a show of support for President Assad's behaviour. Further, the Syrian regime is subject to wide-ranging sanctions and WikiLeaks' actions are deeply counterproductive".
Labor has also criticised the visit, with Chris Bowen, the shadow treasurer, calling the decision "extraordinary".
"The Assad regime has been widely criticised and correctly criticised around the world," he said. "And for an Australian political party to think it's sensible to go and have discussions and try and provide some legitimacy, is something I think which they have to explain."
It's understood that the visit was initially intended as a "fact-finding" mission before meetings with Syrian government officials were brokered. Members of the visiting group, which included the academic Tim Anderson and activists Jamal Daoud and Gail Malone, are expected back in Australia next week.
Several former members of the WikiLeaks party said the trip has caused further consternation within the party, which was formed last year but endured a fraught federal election campaign after several of its candidates resigned amid dissatisfaction over preferencing and internal party processes.
Antony Loewenstein, an author and long-term supporter of WikiLeaks - although never a member of the political party - said the situation was a "sad state of affairs".
"I don't think meeting Assad is the issue, although he is a brutal dictator, no doubt about it," he said. "The problem is the optics of it, that they are being used as a prop by a regime that has undeniably killed tens of thousands or more civilians."
The WikiLeaks party has not commented on the trip so far.