How Australia's quiet diplomacy led Julian Assange to freedom

Jennifer Robinson, the Australian attorney of Assange, said diplomacy and intense lobbying with the highest authorities in the US played a big role in Assange walking free, after spending five years in a high-security British prison and seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.
Last Updated : 26 June 2024, 11:22 IST

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Canberra/Sydney/London: After Julian Assange was released by a court on the remote US Pacific territory of Saipan on Wednesday, ending a 14-year legal battle, the WikiLeaks founder's lawyer first thanked Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for making the outcome possible.

Jennifer Robinson, the Australian attorney of Assange, said diplomacy and intense lobbying with the highest authorities in the US played a big role in Assange walking free, after spending five years in a high-security British prison and seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

"At every opportunity, and when Australian officials were making outreach to the US, they knew that they were acting with the full authority of the prime minister of Australia," Robinson told reporters outside the courtroom in Saipan.

Albanese has claimed Assange's release as a win for the country, which leveraged its security ties with Washington and London to strengthen its case to resolve the plight of an Australian citizen.

"This work has been complex and it has been considered. This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like," Albanese, leader of a centre-left Labor government, told parliament on Wednesday.

Assange, who was due to land in Australia on Wednesday evening, had faced a maximum jail sentence of 175 years after being charged with 17 counts of breaching the US Espionage Act and a hacking-related charge. Under a deal revealed on Tuesday, he pled guilty to a single charge of espionage and walked free.

The deal gained momentum as the US faced growing challenges in the UK over the legality of extraditing Assange, while Australian lawmakers and diplomats raised the heat in Washington and London.

Political shift

A decade ago under a conservative government, there was little political will in Canberra to back Assange's case. But things changed in 2023 when dozens of lawmakers across the political spectrum swung in behind the campaign to bring him home, his father, John Shipton, told Reuters.

That swing culminated in the passage of a parliamentary motion in February this year calling for Assange's release.

Shipton told Reuters the Australian government had been "nothing short of magnificent" and praised former prime minister Kevin Rudd and former defence minister Stephen Smith, Australia's top envoys to the US and Britain.

Australian conservative lawmaker Barnaby Joyce, a former deputy prime minister, was among a cross-party group of politicians who travelled to Washington in September to lobby for a resolution.

Joyce said on Wednesday the trip made the case on Capitol Hill that Australian politicians wanted to "get this thing done", because it was a distraction to Australia's security alliance with the United States.

Long-time advisor to the Australian campaign for Assange, lawyer Greg Barns, said U.S. politicians saw on that trip that "this wasn't a party political issue".

One government official who did not want to be identified said the first big break for Assange came in January 2021, when then shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus issued a statement calling for the case against Assange to end after a British court found that it would be unjust to extradite him to the US.

"This was the first indication that a major political party in Australia was supporting the cause to free Assange," the official said.

Enough is enough

When Labor won power in May 2022, Assange finally had state diplomatic support behind him. Later that year Albanese called for his release on the floor of the House of Representatives, the first time a Prime Minister had mentioned Assange in parliament since 2012.

"Enough is enough, it is time for this matter to be brought to a conclusion," he said.

"My position is clear and has been made clear to the US administration that it is time that this matter be brought to a close. This is an Australian citizen."

Behind the scenes, Albanese and senior cabinet colleagues including Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Attorney General Dreyfus used visits to the US to lobby their counterparts, according to the government official.

The appointment of Smith and Rudd to the top diplomatic jobs in London and Washington in late 2022 added two more sympathetic lobbyists for Assange's cause.

Smith visited Assange in Belmarsh prison in April 2023, the first such visit by Australia's top UK diplomat since he was imprisoned four years earlier.

Deeper ties between Australia and the US through the AUKUS security pact helped push diplomatic efforts along, said Mark Kenny, a professor at Australian National University.

"It looks pretty odd if we're getting ever closer to the U.S. and yet we don’t have a special relationship with the U.S. such that we can advocate and get concessions for an Australian citizen," Kenny said.

Final details

As recently as last July, US officials appeared determined to prosecute Assange. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that month Australia needed to understand US concerns over the issue.

However, a month later, US Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy said a deal was possible.

After the cross-party delegation of Australian politicians travelled to Washington in September to speak to Republican and Democrat lawmakers about the Assange case, the Biden administration appeared to be softening its response.

Joe Biden said in April, "We are considering it," when asked by media about Australia’s request to end Assange’s prosecution.

But it was the UK High Court's decision in May to allow Assange to appeal against his extradition that triggered the breakthrough in negotiations over a plea deal according to his wife Stella.

The court's decision meant the legal battle over extradition would likely be delayed for months more to make time for appeals.

An early plan to have Assange fly to New York or Washington to enter his plea was changed to Saipan because of Assange's opposition to entering the continental United States, according to an Australian government official.

The deal marks the end of a legal saga following WikiLeaks' mass release of secret US documents in 2010 - one of the largest security breaches in US military history.

As Assange was moved from Belmarsh prison to London's Stansted airport in the dead of night on Monday, the secrecy was such that his children weren't told in case they spilled details about his release, according to his wife Stella Assange.

In a global outpouring of support following the news, a crowd funding campaign to raise the $520,000 owed to the Australian government for the flights had already raised almost 330,000 pounds ($418,000) by Wednesday evening.

"I don't think that would have happened if it hadn't been for the incredible support that there has been for Julian, and which has been building over the years, which is global, which is across all sectors, all politics," she said.

($1 = 0.7897 pounds)

Published 26 June 2024, 11:22 IST

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