Jennifer Robinson: ‘Assange had information. That made him dangerous’

Jennifer Robinson: ‘Assange had information. That made him dangerous’

Jennifer Robinson is used to dealing with negative stories about her most famous and controversial client. As Julian Assange’s longest serving lawyer, she’s watched as the founder of WikiLeaks, once feted as the future of investigative journalism, has made powerful enemies around the world — and fallen out with a succession of collaborators. But she insists that Assange has been misunderstood.

“People ought to question what they have read in the media and what’s driven that media coverage,” she says, as we sit in the courtyard of the House of St Barnabas, a Soho private members’ club. “In the end this case is more important than any of that because of the precedent it sets for all journalists.”

We meet shortly before the dramatic events of this week, when a London court blocked the extradition of Assange to stand trial in the US. Had the ruling gone the other way, he would have faced one charge of computer hacking and 17 allegations of violating the US’s 1917 Espionage Act — with the possibility of up to 175 years in jailif he were convicted. But on Monday, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said that, while there was no evidence that Assange’s prosecution was politically motivated, his “mental condition” meant he would be a suicide risk if extradited. Washington plans to appeal, while Assange remains in prison after his bail application was refused on Wednesday.

Robinson arrives at the House of St Barnabas, an imposing Georgian townhouse, wearing a blue mask and wrapped up in a camel-coloured woollen coat and patterned silk scarf. Our encounter is in that brief lull between lockdowns. The 39-year-old lawyer has checked the latest coronavirus restrictions with a fellow barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. When I email anxiously the day before to insist that we eat al fresco, she replies: “Have you been outside today? It’s bloody freezing!”

“As an Australian, even though I have acclimated, I do struggle a bit with the cold,” she laughs as she sits down at the wooden trestle table. Our meeting comes 10 years after Robinson first walked Assange into Kentish Town police station at the height of the WikiLeaks revelations, shortly after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for him over sex crime allegations made by two Swedish women. (The Swedish investigation was finally dropped in 2019.)

Back then, in 2010, she and barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, founder of Doughty Street Chambers, had been closely watching WikiLeaks’ output as it became a conduit for whistleblowers. “Geoff said, ‘he’s going to need our help . . . the US is going to go for him’,” she recalls.

When she first met Assange, he was sitting at Robertson’s kitchen table in London quietly working on a laptop. He struck her as serious and guarded. She had just given a TV interview about human rights in West Papua and he was knowledgeable about the region. “Little did I know he’d probably been reading the [diplomatic] cables about it,” she says.

In the past year, she has barely seen Assange. The pandemic meant that legal visits to Belmarsh, the high-security prison in London where he has been held, have been cancelled. Robinson has also been busy — she represented actor Amber Heard in the high-profile Johnny Depp libel trial last year. She last spoke to Assange on the phone on the morning of our lunch. “There is a Covid outbreak on his wing in Belmarsh, so he can’t even leave his cell to wash,” she says. “Belmarsh is a difficult place at the best of times but through Covid it’s been . . .” — she pauses, searching for the right word — “so incredibly isolating”.

Assange remains a deeply polarising figure. To his supporters, the 49-year-old is an advocate for free speech and transparency who has revealed the truth about America’s wars at great personal cost. WikiLeaks’ extraordinary 2010 trove of secret documents, passed to Assange by Chelsea Manning, the former US military intelligence analyst, exposed the darker side of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and laid bare Washington’s sometimes withering assessment of world leaders.

But Assange has been depicted by his critics as nothing more than an irresponsible, arrogant publicity-seeker. District Judge Michael Snow, who convicted him in 2019 for jumping bail in 2012, described him as “a narcissist who cannot get beyond his own selfish interests”. According to Alan Rusbridger, who as editor of the Guardian collaborated with Assange, “everything about working with Assange was difficult”. Andrew O’Hagan, commissioned to ghostwrite Assange’s autobiography, wrote: “I’d never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear.”

Robinson will not be drawn on the criticisms of Assange’s character. “On the selfish point, Julian has taken decisions to ensure material is made available to the public . . . knowing he would suffer significant personal consequences. How is that selfish? It is the opposite.” she says. “Much has been made of the supposed fallings out but if you look at the team around Julian, a lot of people have been working with him for a very long time.”

After WikiLeaks started to publish US military reports from Iraq in 2010, “Julian and WikiLeaks were the front page of every newspaper,” says Robinson. “And he said to me, ‘Jen, there’s more. I’ve got 250,000 diplomatic cables and I am going to publish them.’ He said, ‘they are very well written and researched and the state department comes off well — [but] that’s not how they are going to see this’.”

Robinson says that she and Assange were followed on at least one occasion and people sat outside her house in parked cars. “He had information and that made him one of the most dangerous and powerful men in the world,” she says.

I realise we have now been talking in the courtyard for about 30 minutes but no one has come to take our order. Robinson nips inside and reappears pointing to a QR-code sticker containing the menu that both of us have failed to spot on the table.

When our waiter arrives we squint at Robinson’s phone as the menu pops up and we both order the same — artichoke soup followed by pumpkin gnocchi. I persuade her to have a glass of wine. “I can’t let you drink alone,” she says cheerfully.

Warned that the courtyard has no patio heaters, I have brought a blanket and a small portable heater but there is nowhere to plug it in. When our drinks arrive, we raise glasses of warming red Malbec.

Public sympathy for Assange began to evaporate in 2012, after he exhausted all his legal options to appeal against the Swedish extradition request, skipped bail and took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy — a stay that would end up lasting seven years. Assange always denied the allegations of sexual assault. Why didn’t he go to Sweden to face them?

“He was questioned [by Sweden’s chief prosecutor in 2016] . . . [The case] was reopened and closed and reopened again several times . . . he was always willing to answer those allegations,” says Robinson. Why hide out in the embassy? She leans forward: “He sought asylum to protect himself from US extradition, which is precisely what happened.”

Assange was finally dragged out of the embassy by police in April 2019, after Ecuador withdrew his asylum status and on the same day the US launched criminal charges. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in Belmarsh prison for his 2012 bail breach and has remained there while fighting US extradition.

House of St Barnabas

1 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 4NQ

Artichoke and chestnut soup X2 £13.00

Pumpkin gnocchi X2 £31.00

Malbec red wine glass X2 £15.00

Tap water

Coffee X2 £6.00

Total £65.00

The US government has accused Assange of putting the lives of secret intelligence sources at risk by publishing unredacted documents. “There is no evidence anyone was harmed,” Robinson counters when I raise this. “Julian has taken decisions to ensure material is made available to the public . . . knowing he would suffer significant personal consequences.”

She adds that the Obama administration did not prosecute Assange because of what has become known as the “New York Times problem” — namely that the US government’s use of the Espionage Act against Assange would set a “terrifying precedent”.

“The cannon will be used against the rest of the media, but it’s not just me that’s saying this . . .” she says, an allusion to the many international media organisations who have warned of the chilling effect of a prosecution.

Some newspapers seized gleefully on details of Assange’s stay inside the Ecuadorean embassy, dubbing him “the worst houseguest ever”. “The dirty protest story was just invented,” Robinson says, adding that the embassy “became a very hostile environment . . . because he was so isolated and because of the spying [on Assange] we now know was happening”.

His ground-floor flat was limited to “an office which he also slept in”, with a map of Australia on the wall. After returning from her trips, Robinson would bring him Vegemite. He was visited by an eclectic bunch of celebrities ranging from Baywatch star Pamela Anderson to Lady Gaga. “I never knew who was going to turn up next,” says Robinson.

During his stay, Assange fathered two children with his lawyer partner Stella Moris, after a relationship that became public only last year. “I didn’t know she was pregnant but there was a very small group of people who knew the situation — even some of Julian’s close friends didn’t know and they fought hard for their privacy,” Robinson says.

She pulls her silk scarf around her and huddles into her coat as our roast artichoke and spiced chestnut soup arrives. It is hearty and warming with plenty of morsels of crunchy chestnuts — the perfect winter soup, says Robinson.

Law was not an obvious career path for the eldest child of an Australian racehorse trainer who was put on a horse before she could walk and who grew up amid the rolling hills and beaches of Berry in New South Wales. One of six siblings, Robinson enjoyed an “idyllic upbringing” surfing, riding horses on the beach, playing netball and acting as a beach lifeguard. “I still go for a horse ride on the beach when I go home,” she says. “Seven Mile Beach is my happy place.”

Long before Assange, a different activist changed Robinson’s life. At 21, studying law and Asian studies at Canberra’s Australian National University, she went to Indonesia for a year and worked for an NGO. There she met Benny Wenda, a campaigner for independence in West Papua, an Indonesian province. He was put on trial by the Indonesian government, charged with inciting violence and arson — a prosecution he argued was politically motivated.

Robinson, who is fluent in Indonesian, worked on Wenda’s defence team, attending court every day. “I was very aware I was followed everywhere by Indonesian intelligence,” she says. “I was threatened with deportation for attending the trial and I had to be very careful about who I spoke with so as not to put others at risk . . . It was one of the most rewarding and compelling times of my life.”

After graduation she became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford university before moving to London to work as a media and human rights lawyer. In 2014 she was pictured alongside Bill Murray atop a speedboat on Venice’s Grand Canal at the wedding of Amal and George Clooney. Her smile dims a little when I mention this. “I’m very protective of my friends and my friendships . . . Amal is wonderful. We met through work — through the Assange case, actually. She’s a brilliant lawyer,” she says cautiously.

Our main courses arrive. The pumpkin gnocchi is satisfyingly salty, daubed with creamy goat’s curd, wild rocket and lots of parmesan. A concerned waitress looks at us sitting out in the cold and tells us the club is registered for business meetings inside. “We prefer out here,” says Robinson. “It’s a form of torture of an Australian.”

Robinson was on the receiving end of media intrusion in 2017 after being photographed embracing Seumas Milne, head of communications for then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “It was a breach of my privacy,” she says sternly. “I do not talk about my private life and I do not want to start now. I now have a personal experience of what it is like to experience media intrusion and that makes me a better lawyer. Clients appreciate that.”

Such clients include Amber Heard, whom Robinson advised in last summer’s libel trial at London’s High Court. The case was brought by Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, who sued Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper over claims he beat Heard during their marriage. Day after day, Robinson was pictured at the High Court supporting a fragile-looking Heard. Heard received vindication in November when trial judge Mr Justice Nicol accepted that “the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved” to the standard required by Britain’s civil courts.

Robinson cannot talk about Heard’s case for legal reasons — the actor still faces a $50m defamation lawsuit brought by Depp in the US — but says Heard’s statement outside court “gave an insight into what it was like for her to be forced to come and speak about some of the most traumatic experiences of her life,” she says. “Amber is one of the most intelligent, hard-working women I have ever met.

“It was a sad reflection to me on our society that a woman who has made domestic violence allegations would require security to come in and out of court,” she adds. “We had people bang on the window of the car as we came through the secure entrance — they would shout at Amber and call her a liar and a gold-digger.”

She talks about the ways in which the law can be used to silence women when speaking about domestic violence. Robinson’s grandmother ran a women’s refuge in Sydney, and she recalls visiting as a 10-year-old, playing with the children and seeing the board in the kitchen where the women divided up their chores. “It made a great impact on me,” she says.

Robinson was “resistant to Twitter for a long time”, but now has a following of nearly 40,000 on the site. “Twitter can be a hostile place,” she says. “The online attacks in respect of Amber have been far worse than anything I experienced during the Assange case.”

We are both feeling the winter chill so I go inside to order coffees and get the bill. Even those who dislike Assange argue that the US’s use of the Espionage Act against him could criminalise investigative reporting. Monday’s ruling looks likely to spark a lengthy appeals process unless Assange receives a presidential pardon.

“I think there is an opportunity for the outgoing US president or the incoming US president to take a different approach and put an end to these proceedings,” Robinson says.

Such clemency seems unlikely, but as we don our face masks, sanitise our hands and head off, I reflect that much stranger things have happened over the past year.

Jane Croft is the FT’s law courts correspondent

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