Jennifer Robinson: Julian Assange, Free Speech and Democracy

On the 19th October 2022, Jennifer Robinson addressed the Australian National Press Club

Available on ABC Iview
and followup interview with Chris Mitchell on ABC NewsRadio

Thank you for your warm welcome and introduction, Laura.

It is a great pleasure to be with you at Australia’s National Press Club on Ngunnawal land. I pay my respect to Ngunnawal elders past, present and emerging – and to all First Nations people here today and joining us remotely.

I’d like to also acknowledge the presence today of those who have supported Julian and his family – including:

  •  Members of the Friends of Assange Parliamentary group, Senators Peter Whish Wilson and David Shoebridge as well as Member for Kooyong, the Hon Dr Monique Ryan;
  • Bernard Collaery, whose endurance, courage and integrity inspires so many of us; And
  • David McBride, the whistle-blower still facing trial, who remains the only person charged years after the Brereton Report

I have been working on Julian Assange’s defence and talking about its implications for freedom of the press and democracy for more than a decade.

You might have heard some media soundbites from me on these themes over the years: about the stark injustice that Julian faces 175 years in prison for committing acts of journalism; about how the US seeks to condemn him to life in prison for the very same publications for which he has won awards the world over – including the Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism and the Sydney Peace Prize Medal; and that his prosecution sets a dangerous precedent for free speech and journalists everywhere.

But having an opportunity to elaborate is rare, so my thanks to the National Press Club for giving me this time with you today.

I’m often asked how Julian is, so let me start there:
I don’t know how much longer he can last.

The world was shocked by his appearance when he was arrested in 2019. I wasn’t.

For over 7 years, I had been watching his health decline inside the Ecuadorian embassy where he was protecting himself from US extradition.

After years of government statements and media commentary claiming Julian was paranoid and should just leave the embassy, some were surprised when Julian was served with a US extradition request.

I wasn’t. It was exactly what we had been warning about for a decade.

For the past 3.5 years, Julian has been in a high security prison in London – and I have watched his health decline even further.

Then last year, during a stressful court appeal hearing, Julian had a mini stroke.

As the prosecution was deriding the medical evidence of Julian’s severe depression and suicidal ideation – and the risk to his life – those with video access saw Julian in a blue room in Belmarsh with his head in his hands.

I’ve seen Julian on some pretty bad days, but he looked terrible. I was alarmed. And for good reason.

As it turned out, he had just had – or was experiencing as we watched – a mini stroke, often the harbinger for a major stroke.

Once again, we were witnessing Julian’s health deteriorate in real time.

Julian’s wife Stella waits anxiously for the phone call she dreads. As she has said, Julian is suffering profoundly in prison – and it is no exaggeration to say he may not survive it.


Unless a political resolution is found – and this case has always been political – Julian will be detained for many years to come.

It is impossible to accurately predict the timeline, but here is a brief overview of where we are and what the legal process ahead looks like.

After a year-long extradition hearing process, interrupted by COVID outbreaks, Julian won his case in early January 2021. If extradited to the US, he would be placed under prison conditions known as Special Administrative Measures – or SAMs – which has been described as the darkest black hole of the US prison system. The magistrate ruled that Julian’s extradition would be oppressive because the medical evidence shows that if extradited and placed under SAMs, he would suicide. So she barred his extradition.

But the Trump administration appealed – and in its last days, sought to get around the court decision and shift the goal posts by offering an assurance that Julian would not be placed under SAMs.

As Amnesty International has said, US assurances aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

But in Julian’s case it’s even worse that that because the US assurance was conditional: the US only promised not to place him under SAMs unless they decide he later deserves it.

And who would decide? The CIA. And he would have no right to appeal their decision.

Before the US government appeal was heard, we learned – thanks to important investigative journalism – that the CIA had planned to kidnap and kill Julian.

Yes: let’s pause there for a moment.

The CIA had planned to kidnap and kill an award-winning Australian journalist in London.

Again: the Central Intelligence Agency had plans in place to send someone to London to kidnap and assassinate Julian Assange. We know this because of an investigation based on interviews with 30 official US government sources.

And this is the intelligence agency which has the power to place Julian, once extradited to the US, under prison conditions that doctors say would cause his suicide.

When the news broke, I thought – finally – this has got to end the case. But no.

The British courts accepted the US assurance and ruled Julian could be extradited despite these circumstances.

In June, the British Home Secretary ordered his extradition.

We have filed an appeal and we should learn soon whether the High Court will grant permission and hear it.

If it does, we can expect a process that could take years – through the High Court, and to the UK Supreme Court. If we lose, we will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights – that is, if the conservative British government doesn’t remove its jurisdiction before we are able to.

If our appeal fails, Julian will be extradited to the US – where his prison conditions will be at the whim of the intelligence agencies which plotted to kill him. He will face an unfair trial and once convicted, it could take years before a First Amendment constitutional challenge would be heard before the US Supreme Court.

Another decade of his life gone – if he can survive that long.

And that is why I am here.

This case needs an urgent political solution. Julian does not have another decade to wait for a legal fix. It might be surprising to hear me, as a lawyer, say this: but the solution is not legal, it is political.

When you hear politicians or government officials in the UK or US or in Australia using language like due process and rule of law – this is what they are talking about. Punishment by legal process. Bury him in never-ending legal process until he dies.

In fact, there’s been very little “rule of law” or “due process” in what’s been inflicted on Julian. As we argue in our appeal, the case has been rife with abuse.

The case against him is unprecedented – it is the first time in history a publisher has faced prosecution for journalism under the Espionage Act. And the US is going to argue that, as an Australian citizen, Julian is not entitled to constitutional free speech protection at all.

The UK-US extradition treaty prohibits extradition for political offences – and yet the US is purporting relying on this treaty to extradite Julian under the Espionage Act. Espionage is a political offence.

We have seen the fabrication of evidence against him – the US’ key witness in Iceland has admitted he lied but the US continues to press charges based on his evidence. And its indictment deliberately misrepresents the facts.

We have seen unlawful surveillance of Julian, on me personally and his lawyers, on his medical treatment, and the seizure of legally privileged material. At the extradition hearing, we heard evidence from Daniel Ellsberg, the revered leaker of the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg explained that his prosecution under the Espionage Act by the Nixon administration was thrown out – with prejudice – for far less abuse than Julian has faced. But Julian’s prosecution commenced under the Trump administration – and now continues under Biden. What does that say about our civil liberties and our democracies in 2022?

The list of abuse goes on and on. [take a breath…]

As a lawyer working on human rights cases, it’s important to remain focused on the principles at stake and the work at hand. An essential part of the job is being dispassionate and level-headed in the face of injustice.

But it has become harder and harder over the years to remain unaffected by what Julian is being put through – as a human being and fellow Australian.

In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, reported his findings on Julian’s case and concluded Julian had been subjected to torture. Years before, we had made a complaint to Melzer’s mandate – but we heard nothing back. Melzer would later admit he had ignored our complaint because, like many, he was prejudiced against Julian after years of government propaganda and media coverage attacking Julian’s reputation.

But in 2019, he agreed to read our complaint. And what he read shocked him and forced him to confront his own prejudice. He has since written a book about what he learned, The Trial of Julian Assange, which I highly recommend.

In his UN findings, Melzer put it this way:

‘In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonise and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law’.

It hasn’t always been easy to remain dispassionate in the face of this persecution – and its impact on Julian and his family.

Julian’s has two small children, Gabriel and Max, who are just 5 and 3. When they tell me about going to see Daddy “in the queue” – they are talking about seeing him in prison. They call it “the queue” because of the security queue they have to stand in, as guards pat down and search their little bodies, checking inside their ears and mouths, in their hair and in their shoes, before they can see their father.

It is heart-breaking.

Due to COVID restrictions, Julian wasn’t allowed to see his children for 6 months. When they were finally let into see him, ongoing prison restrictions meant there was a period he wasn’t allowed to touch them or give them a cuddle. Explain that to a child.

It is heart-breaking.

Last week, thousands of people linked hands to form a human chain around British Parliament in an inspiring protest to demand Julian’s freedom. The kids came to the protest and I walked with them around the chain. They were wearing their “Free My Dad” t-shirts, and chanted along with the crowd “Free Julian Assange”.

It is heart-breaking.

I say this because I want to remind you all today of the very real, human consequences of this case.


But what is Julian in prison for? Why are he and his family being put through all of this?

The events that led to Julian’s indictment started in a room similar to this one.

On 5 April 2010, at the National Press Club in Washington DC, WikiLeaks shared the Collateral Murder video with the world. It put WikiLeaks – and Julian – on the map in all kinds of ways.

As you know, it showed the murder of civilians, children and journalists by US forces in Iraq. A war crime, which the US authorities then tried to cover up.

An Australian journalist, Dean Yates, was the head of Reuters in Iraq at the time. He sought answers about what had happened to his colleagues. The US claimed their forces had complied with their rules of engagement. That was a lie. Freedom of Information requests were rejected – and Yates and Reuters were denied the truth.

It was only after the video and rules of engagement were published by WikiLeaks that the world understood what happened.

I want to emphasise here: Julian is being prosecuted for publishing evidence about the murder of your journalist colleagues in Iraq.

After the release of Collateral Murder came the Afghan War Diary, the Iraq War Logs and the State Department Cables. In each of these releases, WikiLeaks pioneered global collaborations between journalists on a scale never seen before. Working together with WikiLeaks, journalists from mainstream media outlets, analysed large sets of data, identifying patterns and trends to understand what was really happening, and tell the story.

The publications showed that thousands more civilians were killed in American wars than the US government had ever admitted. They showed evidence of war crimes, extrajudicial killings, and torture by US forces, western governments and their autocratic regime allies. They revealed the dense networks of support between those governments and major corporations and the extent to which foreign and trade policy was driven by corporate interests.

Journalism like this, at its core, is about subjecting power to scrutiny, and holding it accountable.

And the powerful didn’t like it. WikiLeaks was responsible for hundreds – even thousands – of stories about how power really works in Washington, in London, in Canberra, in capitals across the world – about what it means in the streets and homes of people in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan – and about the price that is paid for the application of power in shattered lives and dead and broken bodies.

Rather than shame, WikiLeaks provoked rage – rage that journalism was exposing the powerful.

The Obama administration opened a criminal investigation which Australian diplomats reported was unprecedented in size and scale.

But the Obama administration ultimately did not indict Julian. Their concern was the “New York Times problem”: that is, that prosecuting Julian would mean criminalising what the New York Times does every day.

President Trump had no such qualms. After all, he called the media, “the enemy of the people” and said he wanted to see reporters in prison. And the result is an indictment against Julian which describes – and criminalises – routine journalistic practices.

But let’s not forget that Trump was willing to play politics with this prosecution.

Back in 2017 – before Julian had been indicted – a Congressman came to visit Julian in the embassy to offer him a deal.

Julian asked me to attend to observe the meeting and I would later give evidence about it for his extradition hearing.

It was at the height of the Mueller investigation – about Russian interference in the 2016 election – when President Trump was a subject of the investigation. Julian had already stated in public that the material was not from a government source. But Trump clearly wanted to know more.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher made clear that President Trump was aware of and had approved of him coming to discuss a proposal.

It was what he called a “win-win solution” that would allow Julian to “get on with his life”. Julian was asked to identify the source of the 2016 election publications – which the Congressman explained would solve Trump’s political problems and help him put a stop to the Mueller investigation. In return, Julian would receive a pardon or some form of protection against US extradition.

Julian refused to provide the identity of his source.

A publisher’s promise to sources is solemn, as would be well understood in this room, even if it carries a cost.

Trump too, made good on his promise, his administration indicting Julian after he refused to name his source.

Julian has had other opportunities to act in his own interest rather than in the interests of democracy and free speech – and he has always put his own interests second.

And the result is an indictment against him which threatens free speech and democracy. The Freedom of the Press Foundation calls Julian’s prosecution “the most terrifying threat to free speech in the 21st century”. And that is not an exaggeration.

One of the 18 charges relates to taking measures to protect the identity of a source. The remaining 17 charges, all brought under the Espionage Act, relate to receiving and publishing information – and there is no public interest defence.

And around the world the media has responded – The New York Times,
the Washington Post, and the Guardian have warned that the US is criminalising public interest journalistic practices.

Journalists unions have responded – IFJ, MEAA, NUJ, have condemned the prosecution and called on the US to drop the charges.


Today, at the National Press Club of Australia, I want to make very clear: the Trump administration indicted Julian to send a message to the press. To deter journalism and publishing. Prosecuting Julian is intended to send a message to all of you.

With those reflections on the case against Julian, let me now turn to the implications for free speech and democracy.


Julian founded WikiLeaks with a mission statement – the goal is justice, the method is transparency. He could see that secrecy breeds injustice and that by shining a light, governments can be held accountable. He knew that transparency deters unlawful conduct and encourages better policy-making.

And he was right: WikiLeaks publications have been used in human rights cases the world over – including in some of my cases – to hold government accountable and enforce your rights.

Julian founded WikiLeaks to improve democratic accountability. As he says, we cannot act if we do not know. He wanted to provide the public with the information they need to make more informed democratic choices.

And he was right: Amnesty International credited Wikileaks with sparking the Arab Spring – and democratic movements for change.

Julian once said, if lies can start an unlawful war, then the truth can stop it.

And again, he was right: WikiLeaks publications led to the Iraqi Parliament removing immunity for US troops in occupied Iraq – which led to the withdrawal of US troops.

For this work, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year for the past decade – that is more times than any other Australian.

WikiLeaks was out in front in recognising the implications of the internet for journalism and its promise and potential for protecting sources with anonymity guaranteed by technology. Julian created technology that has been replicated by media organisations the world over to protect themselves and their sources.

For this work, Julian has won journalism awards around the world. And for this work, he faces life in prison.

This injustice could not be more obvious. No matter how long the US government drags this out, we must all resist the normalisation of this treatment of an Australian journalist and publisher – or he won’t be the last of you to suffer.

As the President of the IFJ said this week, ‘If Julian Assange is jailed in the US, there is not a journalist on earth who will be safe”.

And she is right.

If Julian is extradited, the precedent being set means that any journalist, anywhere in the world, can be extradited and prosecuted in the US for publishing truthful information in the public interest. Would we stand by and accept this if it was Russia or China doing the same?


I want to make a few concluding remarks about Julian’s future. About what the Australian government can do. And about what you can do.

Those who resolve Julian’s case – by securing his release – will be remembered well in the books that will be written about it. They will be on the right side of history.

Australians remember well who brought David Hicks home. We remember well who got Peter Greste, Melinda Taylor and James Ricketson out of overseas prisons. We remember well who got Kylie Moore-Gilbert out of prison in Iran. If we can put an end to an espionage case against an Australian citizen in Iran, we can do it in respect of an equally outrageous espionage case in the US.

And what a great day that was, when Kylie was free.

I look forward to another great day, when this Australian Prime Minister and this government gets Julian out of prison.

For more than a decade we have had nothing but silence and complicity from consecutive Australian governments. Government after government – on both sides of politics – did not have the courage to speak to our close ally and act to protect an Australian citizen and journalist.

We now have a Prime Minister who has said, and I quote, “Enough is enough”.

“I fail to see what purpose is being served by the ongoing incarceration of Julian Assange. A heavy price has been paid.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We now need to see action.

We all want to see our Prime Minister taking questions at a press conference about Julian’s release – rather than about Julian’s death in custody.

And what will help force the government bring this to a close? You – the journalists in this room.

You, above all people, are able to differentiate between publishing and espionage; a distinction that the US government and its allies seem intent on erasing.

You have the unique opportunity and responsibility of facing the Prime Minister and his colleagues day after day. You can ask what is being done and when it is we will see Julian brought home. Ask them this – the Attorney General, the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister – at every press conference until Julian is free.

If we don’t see that day, Julian Assange won’t be the last of your colleagues to have his life destroyed in this line of work.

What will also help force our government to do the right thing and bring Julian home?

You – the public.

Protest, write to your MP, write to the Prime Minister, turn up at their offices and demand action. Working for democratic accountability is why Julian is in prison – and I believe democratic accountability can help him get out of it.

So hold our government to account. And let’s bring Julian Assange home. Thank you.

Jen Addressing rally at doors to Press Club