“Motivated by justice”: defending the world’s courageous people

Australian human rights lawyer and member of the legal team defending Wikileaks since 2010, talks about the hacker from Queensland who chose to fight against surveillance capitalism. Interview.

Jennifer Robinson Yorgos Boskos
18 April 2018
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Photograph: George Hughes / Illustration: Celia LeoudiYorgos Boskos (YB): How did you get involved in the first place with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange?

Jennifer Robinson (JR): Julian first reached out to myself and a colleague of mine, the Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, in around September 2010. This was just before WikiLeaks was about to publish the Iraq war logs. Julian was in London, preparing that release, which came several months later, at the end of November. He was working with the Guardian and a group of other international newspapers.

It was around the time when there was concern about what might happen in Sweden, where there was an open investigation into sexual allegations that had previously being dropped. It now seemed that Julian might have to answer those allegations. So, Julian required assistance and advice. It was also the time, of course, that Chelsea Manning was arrested, and a US criminal investigation in grand jury had been announced.

YB: What was your first impression on meeting Julian Assange?

JR: Here was a man with a small group of volunteers and a backpack. And in his interactions with me what he was really doing was making his very brave decisions about what to publish. There were a lot of public threats being made against him at that particular time. He was incredibly security-conscious - conscious of the fact that they were pursuing him, trying to find ways to prosecute and investigate him. So apart from his remarkable work, the other factor was the strength of the state response that was building against him. He was perceived to be the most powerful man in the world, in that period. And why? Because he had access to that information.

YB: During your TEDx speech in Sydney in 2013, you stated that courage is contagious. Do you think that this courage is sufficient to beat the political and judicial establishment and set Julian Assange free?

JR: Well, it will take a lot more than courage to set Julian Assange free. The situation that he is facing at the moment is incredibly serious. He is arbitrarily, unlawfully detained as the United Nations ruling puts it. There are very few legal maneuvers that we have left to us under these conditions.

This is a highly politicised case and requires a political solution. The case has always been about the risk of Julian’s extradition to the United States. No one can credibly deny that risk, after the very public statements made by figures within Trump’s administration in that regard in the last year. I am referring to the director of the CIA, who described WikiLeaks as a non-state, hostile intelligence agency and said that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange should not benefit from constitutional, free speech protections under the First Amendment. Also, US attorney general Jeff Sessions stated that prosecuting Julian Assange is a priority.

Ecuador’s decision to grant him asylum back in 2012 in order to protect him from that risk was absolutely correct. However, as you know, the UK refuses to acknowledge that protection or provide any insurance against that risk. The Swedish investigation was dropped last year, which means it is no longer in play. It’s over, allowing us to focus on what the real issue is.

And that is the risk of US prosecution. This case could have been resolved over the past seven years, had the UK given the assurance that Ecuador has been seeking. Unfortunately, Julian’s case remains unresolved. And in this case, a resolution is automatically going to be a political one.

YB: Do you believe that the rape allegations against Julian Assange were politically motivated by the US?

JR: I didn't say that and I would never make that accusation. And I think it is very important that the women’s accusations are heard and investigated. But it’s equally important that men accused in this way are given a fair jury process.

Of course, there are significant questions to be raised about the way in which the Swedish authorities handled this case. When I first represented Julian, back in 2010  – when there was no arrest warrant as yet – we were continually offering Julian’s testimony through his Swedish council, to ensure that the prosecutor had all the information she needed to be able to deal with the case without the need for an arrest warrant. They refused his testimony offer, saying that there was a European arrest warrant in force, just days before Cablegate.

The timing of this warrant raises serious questions about the prosecutors’ motivations and the way in which they conducted the case. We continued to offer his testimony, but they issued an arrest warrant. We could have resolved the case without it. For years they continued to refuse his testimony. Then Julian had a UN ruling in his favor and they decided to drop the investigation last May. This could have been done seven years ago. Significant questions therefore ought to be answered by the Swedish authorities. How did that happen? Why did they delay this case so that Julian had to suffer so much as a result of this terrible process?

YB: Does the UK have an obligation to let Assange leave the Embassy and the country?

JR: Julian is an Australian-Ecuadorian citizen, having been granted protection by the Ecuadorian Government. As a matter of international law, the UK has an obligation to bring an end to his situation, which is an unlawful, arbitrary detention. The UK ought to immediately release him and pay compensation for the time he spent under conditions of severely restricted liberty. As a matter of domestic law, the only accusation lodged by the UK government is that Julian has jumped jail, which is not true. He has never been concerned about facing British justice. He is concerned about the risk of facing American injustice. And if the UK can give him diplomatic assurance, he can leave the country without facing US extradition; then this situation will be over within a matter of hours.

YB: Various UK media have reported the Minister of Foreign Affairs as stating: “Julian Assange is a ‘miserable little worm’ and he should turn himself in”. After such a statement, do you think that the Foreign Office is at all willing to reach an agreement with Ecuador and the WikiLeaks founder?

JR: I am not sure whether this statement was made by Boris Johnson, or by another very prominent minister within the Foreign Office. But it does raise concerns about the attitude within the current British government towards Julian Assange and explains why we have not had the resolution we seek.

But we have to ask the question; how accountable is this government to the British people? How much is this case costing the British taxpayer? The costs of policing outside the embassy are assigned to public expenditure. When I walk to the embassy to visit Julian, I can routinely see at least six police officers who are 24 hours a day surrounding the embassy. Metropolitan police officers maintained a constant watch of the embassy in Knightsbridge at a cost of at least £12m, according to Scotland Yard’s figures, between 2012 – 2015. At that point, the Metropolitan police decided to classify the budget, which means it’s no longer accessible to the public. We have no way of knowing how much money is being spent on this case. And if the British government were accountable to the British people about how much this is costing, not to mention the damage it is doing to Britain’s international reputation, they should conduct a serious discussion about resolving the case, because it is completely unsustainable.

YB: Ecuador recently cut off Julian Assange’s internet access at the London embassy. Was the decision to isolate him an initiative of the Ecuador Government or are there pressures from the US and the Spanish governments behind this?

JR: I think it’s very important to recognize that Ecuador took an incredibly brave decision to grant Julian Assange asylum. It was a principled decision taken in the face of significant political pressure. And I remind you of the background of those events. When Julian first walked into the embassy, a British official threatened Ecuador saying that the British government would consider entering the embassy to take him by force. Ecuador replied, ‘‘you must respect our diplomatic status”. Cutting off his communication in reaction to some tweets and his expression of opinion is a concern for us; it is a diplomatically sensitive issue, which is currently under negotiation.

At this point, it is difficult to say what may happen, but we are confident that we will find a solution, and, of course, we are very grateful to Ecuador for the continued protection offered to Julian Assange in the face of such significant pressure.

YB: A lot of media attention has been devoted to the fact that Julian Assange is a difficult person rather than the WikiLeaks mission. Why did that happen, according to you?

JR: WikiLeaks is an important media organization, when it comes to the accountability of the media itself. WikiLeaks has a more robust publication policy than any other publisher; they have been getting more leaks and scoops than many other media outlets around the world combined. WikiLeaks provides scientific journalism, as we say. Readers can go and see for themselves what’s being written; they have access to the actual documents, the real information. This is a very important development in terms of accountability for the rest of the world’s media. This is the reason why there has been a lot of pushback against Julian and WikiLeaks. Julian has a unique approach to what he does and what he publishes, which makes it quite difficult to work with The Times.

YB: How then do you think WikiLeaks has impacted on journalism and what is the biggest contribution it has made to the world community?

JR: Journalists should be able to protect their sources. Protecting one’s source is an important way to ensure that sensitive material will continue to be given to journalists. WikiLeaks provides a better protection through technology as opposed to the law, to ensure both sources and journalists are protected by proceedings around the protection of sources. That’s a remarkable innovation and goes a long way to encouraging more whistleblowers to come forward, knowing that they have that protection.

Also WikiLeaks provides access to the right to know. We didn’t talk about the right to know, in those terms, before WikiLeaks. It has created public awareness globally about fundamental digital liberties and accountability over human rights abuse. Furthermore, WikiLeaks has provided human rights lawyers with a huge amount of documentation, which they have been able to use in court cases around the world, seeking accountability for human rights abuse.

To put it slightly differently, the goal is justice, the method is transparency. We have seen WikiLeaks cables cited in numerous cases: in British courts, in the European Court of Human Rights, in the International Criminal Court, in NGOs reporting, in documentary films... .

YB: Since you mention documentaries, I would like to ask you about Laura Poitras’ latest film about Julian Assange, called Risk. How do you evaluate the film? Is it true that the director violated the legal undertaking she signed up to with WikiLeaks on the project?

JR: There were a number of concerns about the material used in the film and violations of the agreement between WikiLeaks and the director. I am referring to the material that could not be taken to the United States and the editing that could not take place there, obviously because of concerns that the material was sensitive and could be subject to criminal investigation.

However, it is important to recognize that the film does demonstrate that Julian is incredibly brave and that he has suffered significantly from the work he has done with WikiLeaks. And I do think that does come to life in Laura’s film.

YB: Could you leak to us a discussion between you and Julian?

JR: Absolutely not!

YB: Well how would you describe Julian Assange?

JR: He is incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and committed to his work. He is a pioneer of the digital era. WikiLeaks’s model and anonymous submissions systems have been replicated by the biggest news organizations in the world. I have always been struck by his courage. He publishes everything, whether that is CIA material or diplomatic cables, knowing the consequences that will follow for him personally. They are very few editors on the face of the planet who take that same position.

YB: I am thinking of Donald Trump’s tweet: “I love Wikileaks”… Is this remotely true?

JR: I don’t think so. He made that statement during the political campaign, before the US election, because WikiLeaks publications were convenient to him at that time. The priority for Trump’s administration now is to prosecute WikiLeaks.

YB: What do you think about Trump’s nominee, Gina Haspel, as the new director of the CIA?

JR: It is a great concern that someone who has been directly involved in torture, has been promoted to be the head of CIA. I am wondering, is that her reward? This promotion sends a terrible message to the rest of the world and raises significant concerns about impunity and the US government’s commitment to human rights. To my mind, this is certainly unacceptable from any leader of this supposedly free world.

YB: What is it like being in the legal team of one of the biggest stories in the world?

JR: It has been a privilege. WikiLeaks is a fascinating story; it is one of the most important legal cases and political development in the last decade. I have seen at first hand the treatment of Julian Assange – how he has suffered – since the arrest warrant. I have seen the remarkable courage and bravery of people working with WikiLeaks, the risks, and the suffering. Everything they have been through to ensure that the material would be accessible to the public.

It has also been a fascinating legal experience working on cases from Chelsea Manning’s proceedings to the United States to the financial blockade by Visa and Mastercard, to the United Nations, to Sweden’s criminal system. I am proud and concerned at the same time. WikiLeaks pushed the boundaries of free speech. And that has had a great impact on public interest and national security journalism. As somebody who is a committed human rights lawyer and believes in free speech, I say we must defend WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

YB: What’s the most significant thing you have learned from WikiLeaks?

JR: That law can be inherently political and that information is the establishment’s source of power. Governments control narratives and information because by controlling information, they can control the country.

It is so important that we have robust, vigorous media organizations, which are willing to challenge governments, in order to ensure that we have the information we need effectively to make democratic decisions. This is one of the most important aspects of what WikiLeaks does.

YB: When human rights activists are being killed in Brazil and journalists in Malta, how does the future look for anyone who is revealing dirty secrets or defying corruption and power?

JR: It is vital that there are transparency and accountability around attacks on journalists. This is the reason why I feel so passionate about defending journalists. We must defend journalists and their sources in the face of such threats because we rely on the information that brave journalists are robustly investigating and bringing into the public domain. I can’t do my job unless I have information about what is happening.

We can’t effectively make a decision during an election if we don’t know what governments are up to. It is essential that we defend the role of the fourth estate to be able to live in a free society.

YB: What’s the purpose of the Bertha Foundation and what’s your contribution to the organization’s Justice Initiative?

JR: The Bertha Foundation is a philanthropic organization that is committed to creating social change. It supports a range of initiatives in activism, law, and media, funding documentary films, activist’s groups and social movements around the world.

I had the great privilege of coming on board to build the human rights and law programme five years ago. It is a programme that is a two-year fellowship for young, emerging human rights lawyers. That was created with the purpose of creating the next generation of social movement lawyers, who are committed to social change and serving social movements around the world through law and activism.

I no longer work for the foundation, but I am very proud of the work I did establishing the programme; and I get very excited when I see the work young lawyers are doing, from Palestine to Haiti, to the Philippines, Columbia, Mexico and beyond. These are remarkable young people, who will take on big, difficult cases and challenge powerful structures for those who need help.

YB: What intrigues you most about your job?

JR: I feel really committed to supporting and encouraging those who stand up against powerful interests while defending journalists, WikiLeaks, human rights activists who report upon the public interest and not in favor of governments or powerful corporations. That really motivates me.

I am also motivated by justice. I can’t just stand by and watch what can happen. I feel empowered through the education I have been privileged to have that I am able to help people.

YB: Where do you see Julian Assange in five years?

JR: I would like to see Julian Assange out of that embassy, living wherever in the world he would like to live, whether that is Ecuador or Australia, and being able to operate WikiLeaks and continue its important mission. That’s what I would like to see and I would like to think that this is what is going to happen in the end.

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