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Friday, 4 May 2018

Lawyer Jennifer Robinson: why does she defend Julian Assange pro bono?

Jennifer Robinson: why does she defend Julian Assange pro bono?

Jennifer Robinson. Picture: Mark Harrison
Jennifer Robinson. Picture: Mark Harrison
  • The Times

When lawyer Jennifer Robinson first met Julian Assange, the most famous prisoner in the world not actually to be in prison, he was, she says, just “a guy with a backpack”. By mid-2010, the WikiLeaks founder had tossed some grenades into the public domain – a leaked report on toxic waste dumping; Guantanamo Bay torture ­manuals – but Cablegate, the explosive release of 250,000 classified US diplomatic cables, still lay ahead. Nevertheless, human rights ­lawyer Geoffrey Robertson smelt trouble and called ­Robinson, with whom he’d worked in her capacity as a lawyer at a central London practice, and asked her to be prepared. The three of them, Assange, Robinson and ­Robertson, were, after all, Australians.
Sure enough, in September allegations of ­sexual assault pelted Assange from Sweden. Sure enough, Mr WikiLeaks contacted Robertson’s Doughty Street Chambers, a famously liberal law firm that had among its barristers someone who would become even more well known than Assange – Amal Clooney, Jennifer Robinson’s best friend (Robinson was a guest at the Clooneys’ wedding in Venice in 2014). Over that northern autumn of 2010, Assange and Robinson would meet and talk in a posh journalists’ watering hole called the Frontline Club in west London. “I spent a lot of time in the Frontline, let me tell you,” she says. In late November, Cablegate broke very big indeed, Assange having negotiated ­simultaneous publication with papers all over the world. The Obama administration was outraged. The Swedish sex claims suddenly became urgent.

Meeting of minds: Assange and Robinson in 2011. Picture: AFP / Carl Court
Meeting of minds: Assange and Robinson in 2011. Picture: AFP / Carl Court
Robinson recalls walking Assange into a police station in north London 12 days later. There, at 9.30am, he surrendered for arrest on behalf of the Swedish authorities on suspicion of rape, unlawful coercion and two counts of sexual molestation allegedly committed that summer in Sweden. “I did not expect it was going to become so big,” says Robinson. “And I certainly never expected I’d spend so much time visiting him in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.”
Seven and a half years later, it is late afternoon in a sleek conference room in Doughty Street – outside, the law firm’s chambers are grandly ­Georgian, inside grandly modernist – and “Jen”, as everyone seems to call her, is newly back from her latest meeting with her client in the Ecuadorean embassy. It is the first decent day of the northern spring, and Assange has seen nothing of it.
He has been holed up inside since June 2012, when he skipped police bail, and two months later gained official asylum from a state whose government was on helpfully bad terms with the US. It is not for fear of being arrested for a breach of British bail conditions that Assange to this day refuses to leave the embassy. Nor is it the Swedish allegations, all of which were eventually dropped by the police. What scares him is America. Like his lawyer, he believes there is a sealed grand-jury indictment prepared that will have him extradited to the US the moment he steps forth. And then he would spend the rest of his life in a real jail, rather than the de facto one in Knightsbridge.
And all for publishing what no one denies is the truth! If only it were that simple. Governments have their secrets and some of them, most would say, need to stay secret, not least to protect those who work for them. People understand that, because people have secrets too, which, if announced, might do more harm than good. So, from one side, the cry is for transparency and daylight. From the other, the contention that privacy is a human right and confidentiality freedom’s guarantor. We all have to decide to which side we are closer.
Jennifer Robinson, for instance, is about the most open, unstuffy lawyer you could hope to meet, a woman who, when asked by a legal ­magazine what came to her when she closed her eyes and thought of the word “law”, replied: “Jude”. She willingly tells me plenty about Assange’s ­present state of health and mind. “I think he’s looking as well as you can imagine. His health ­situation is terrible. He’s had a problem with his shoulder for a very long time. It requires an MRI [magnetic resonance imaging scan], which cannot be done within the embassy. He’s got dental issues. And then there’s the long-term impact of not being ­outside: his visual impairment. He wouldn’t be able to see further than from here to the end of this hallway.” Because eyes get used to only dealing with the short distances of a confined area? “Precisely. And no access to sunlight. People refer to the balcony photographs, but they are very rare instances and a security threat. That’s the only outside space that exists. It’s not an ­exercise yard. There’s no back yard.”
The embassy recently cut off his internet. He cannot see his ex-wife or son. “It is absolutely ­devastating not to be able to see your children,” Robinson thinks. So what about his mental state? “Considering the circumstances, he’s held it together very well. He’s still very well in terms of intellectual engagement. He’s one of my favourite people to debate with, actually.” I was going to ask, I say, what she made of him. “What do I make of him? I find him fascinating. He is incredibly ­principled, and doggedly so. That’s what scares the establishment. He will publish if he receives something [valid]. You know, he published a massive amount of material about the CIA this year. He’s been in a precarious position for many, many years and it has not stopped him publishing.”
It’s a kind of tic, isn’t it? He just can’t stop ­himself. “But that’s the ethos of WikiLeaks and, honestly, he sees it as his duty.”
He is clearly a hero to Robinson, who is ­representing him pro bono, but it is worth remembering that Assange started out the hero of many. There was even, although he hated it, a movie about him, The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Sympathy began to curdle, however. In 2014, writer Andrew O’Hagan, hired to ghost his memoirs, described him in the ­London Review of Booksas vain and vindictive, with strange habits such as eating his food with his hands and licking the plate. During the 2016 US election, Assange released emails sent and received by Hillary Clinton and then others that disclosed the machinations of the Democratic National Committee against her rival, Bernie Sanders. Sarah Palin, who had previously accused Assange of having blood on his hands, abruptly warmed to him. His former allies began to see him as tiresome and cowardly, mad even.
Robinson says this ebbing of support is not universal. In India, Pakistan and Mexico, there remain fans, and she believes his native Australia stays loyal – a claim many would contest. It was surely the sexual abuse allegations that first scraped some of the lustre from his reputation. Did she ever feel uncomfortable representing an alleged rapist? “I get asked that all the time: ‘As a woman, how do you feel about defending that case?’ I say, ‘Well, are you saying as a woman I can’t be a ­lawyer?’ Of course I’m going to defend this case. Everyone deserves a defence. Julian ­certainly deserves a defence. And in these circumstances, there were real questions about whether what was alleged was in fact a crime.”
An alternative thought is that, although he may be well meaning, he is the Kremlin’s useful idiot. Have not his leaks actually hurt the West far more than Russia? “He has published a lot about Russia! And, in fact, Julian has been very critical of Putin. Pussy Riot have been to visit him in the embassy. So to suggest that he’s somehow beholden is just frankly wrong.” The leaks could still have come from Russia. “Well, Julian has said, which is very unusual, that Russia was not the source of the material and nor was any other state.”
Others simply believe that the time has come for him to leave the embassy and put his case before a court in the US – which is clearly where he would end up, given the British-US extradition treaty. Robinson’s counter-argument is that he would never receive a fair trial. “We’ve had the US attorney general Jeff Sessions say publicly that it is a priority to prosecute him. We’ve had the CIA director Mike Pompeo, who is about to become secretary of state, say that WikiLeaks is a hostile non-state intelligence agency and that Julian should not benefit from First Amendment protections [guaranteeing free speech].”
Yet going right back to W.T. Stead, editor of The Pall Mall Gazette in the Victorian era, ­journalists have been willing to go to jail for a story they believe in. Why won’t he? “Just him being extradited and prosecuted would set a ­terrible precedent for the First Amendment. It would put a chill on all public-interest publishers and journalists who are dealing in any way with national security material and government leaks. It would set a ­terrible precedent for all free speech in the United States. We say he is entitled to the First Amendment and shouldn’t face prosecution for doing what the rest of the media does. Now, should the UK be complicit in handing him over to that process when he is a publisher? The answer, in my view, is absolutely not.”

Message: Robinson speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in 2016. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images
Message: Robinson speaks to the media outside the Ecuadorean Embassy in 2016. Picture: Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images
Robinson regards Assange as a journalist, and she not only aligns herself with journalists, she appears to like them. In other arenas, she is ­fighting for journalists at the BBC Persian service whose families are being intimidated in Iran, has intervened in the European Court on behalf of the media in a right-to-privacy case, and took on Google in an action, originating in Spain, about the “right to be forgotten”.
Her loyalties must surely have been tested last year, however, when British newspapers printed pictures of her at a five-star hotel in London “canoodling” with Seumas Milne, ­Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor. Milne, a member of the hard left, is more than 20 years her senior, and, unlike her, married. Neither Milne nor Robinson made any public comment afterwards but neither did they go to the UK’s press regulator to complain about an invasion of privacy. I suppose, as a champion of free speech, she couldn’t really?
“Well, I think we all know that elements of the British press sensationalise and distort people’s personal lives for profit and for political gain or political attack,” she says, her face not crimsoning in the slightest. “And having been the subject of press intrusion in a story in which there was no public interest, I am now much better equipped and have a much better understanding and ­empathy for others who have been through it. I think it makes me a more effective lawyer.”
Would it not have been hard for her to go to the press regulator, given her championing of free speech? “No! Just because I’m a media lawyer doesn’t mean that I have no rights. I haven’t made a complaint. I chose not to say anything about it.” So there is a right to privacy? “Of course there’s a right to privacy. The question is how far it’s breached. You know, people often make this false analogy. People say, ‘Well, Julian doesn’t believe in privacy.’ ‘Transparency advocates don’t believe in privacy.’ That’s just not true, because individuals have the right to privacy. The state does not.”
Which kind of clears up that conundrum – but also ends any hope of getting answers about her private life. “I don’t talk about my personal relationships and nor am I about to start,” she says.
Robinson was born 37 years ago in Berry, NSW, two hours’ drive south of Sydney, the ­daughter of horse trainer Terry Robinson and his first wife Lyndy Cracknell, a teacher. One of six children, she grew up being told by her parents she could be whatever she wanted to be. In this assertion of women’s rights she had two great examples. One was her mother, the first woman, she says, who dared drink with the men in a ­public bar in Berry. (The legal prohibition on women in bars had been lifted, but a cultural one endured.) Her grandmother, Phillippa Cracknell, sounds still more formidable, a feminist who ran shelters in Sydney for women escaping domestic violence. She also helped women from across NSW, some of whom had been raped, to obtain safe abortions in Sydney.
Robinson went to the Australian National University in Canberra, where she read international law and Asian studies and then won a ­Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where she got two more law degrees. She chose to stay in Britain, she says, because London was the English-speaking capital of the world and legal change there had a knock-on effect on the rest of the Commonwealth.
In 2002 she worked as a volunteer in West Papua, which was under Indonesian military rule. Speaking fluent Indonesian, she specialised in workers’ exploitation at Freeport gold mine. She defended the West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda and helped him get to Britain as a political refugee. Back in London, in 2009 she joined media solicitors Finers Stephens Innocent (as an Australian, she could not go straight to the Bar) and developed a relationship with the crusading barristers of Doughty Street. She finally joined them in 2016 as a barrister.
Her politics are high-minded but there is no pomposity in her. In the jokey 2011 online legal magazine Q&A in which she spoke the name Jude Law, she advised young lawyers not to spend all day at their desks because London had so much fun to offer. “This advice applies to any city, except maybe Canberra,” she added. In her fridge, she said, she kept nothing but champagne.
When she talks of being harassed for her work for Assange, it does not come over as boastfulness or paranoia. Her reaction seems a mix of genuine outrage, mild alarm and humour. The first instance came just before Cablegate. On behalf of Assange, she had given notice to the US State Department of the imminent publication of the cables. “In response, the State Department wrote a letter starting, ‘Dear Ms Robinson and Mr Assange,’ which was in breach of attorney-client protocol. It had lines in it saying, ‘You are putting at risk US lives. You’ – you plural – ‘are putting at risk counterterrorism operations. You are putting at risk diplomatic ­relationships the world over.’ Then they published it to the press. I started to get death threats after that.” From whom? “Random bits and pieces. ­Letters, aggressive emails. All kinds of things.”
Was the letter deliberate harassment? “The State Department knows how to write an attorney-client letter.” Later it was revealed she had been mentioned in a plan drawn up by a US government ­surveillance contractor, HBGary, on how to deal with the WikiLeaks problem. Without the support of people such as her, it concluded, WikiLeaks would fold: “Ultimately, most of them if pushed will choose professional self-preservation over cause.”
Well, they obviously did not know Robinson. “Yes, but I’ve often thought, ‘What do they mean, ‘if pushed’? What does that mean?”
At Heathrow in 2012, she was about to board a Virgin flight for a lawyers’ conference in Australia when her passport was handed to a security guard. The check-in clerks told her she was “inhibited” and could not be let on the plane until they had contacted Australia House. “And I was standing there saying, ‘What are you talking about? ­Inhibited?’ I’d never heard it before. They said, ‘Look, we’ve got to make a call.’”
In the end she got on the plane and to Australia, and phoned Assange. He said people connected with WikiLeaks were frequently stopped at airports but never one of its lawyers. “I think Julian might have joked about the phrase ‘inhibited’,” she recalls. Later, it transpired that “inhibited” was a term found on lists drawn up by US Homeland Security. “I was rattled, because you don’t expect as a lawyer to suffer any consequences because of whom you represent. I think the reaction to ­Wiki­Leaks and the things that have happened around it are quite revealing about the pushback on someone who really challenges the establishment.”
Challenging authority is the job of the media. It follows that, to most journalists, leaks from the establishment make a beautiful sound. What of the conduit of those leaks, however? I say to her that when I think of her client, I think of the Mozart of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus: on one level great, but in practice an obscene child. She takes no offence, because she never does. “There are many difficult characters in the world who do amazing things,” she says. It takes, perhaps, a ­Jennifer Robinson to appreciate the divinity in a man like Assange.