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“Let’s bring Julian Assange home” – read Jennifer Robinson’s speech to the National Press Club

Introduction by Croakey: A group representing more than 300 doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and other healthcare professionals from more than 35 countries has called, again, for the release from an English prison of Australian journalist Julian Assange.

In an open letter to the UK Home Secretary and US Attorney General on 17 October, they warned that Assange’s mental and physical health is at grave risk, a concern also held by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, Australia.

“As healthcare professionals we have an ethical obligation to denounce torture where we see it, and to seek to end it. That is why we have called for an end to the persecution of Julian Assange since our founding three years ago, and why we again call for an end to his extradition once and for all,” said the letter from Doctors for Assange.

In a speech today to the Australian National Press Club, human rights lawyer and barrister Jennifer Robinson urged journalists and the public to step up pressure on the Albanese Government to bring Assange home, for the sake of his health and his family, and for the sake of democracy and media freedom.

Her speech is published in full below, with permission.


Jennifer Robinson writes:

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 seven 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.

Declining health

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.

Political solution needed

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.

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 has two small children, Gabriel and Max, who are just five and three. 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 six 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.

Exposing the powerful

On 5 April 2010, at the National Press Club in Washington DC, WikiLeaks shared theCollateral 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.

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