How Julian Assange Was Finally Freed

By Neenah Payne

Julian Assange, Australian founder of WikiLeaks, was freed on June 25 after spending over seven years in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to the United States and after being held for over five years in London’s  Belmarsh prison (although he had been charged with no crime).

When Assange landed in Australia on June 26 and received a call from the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Assange said, “You saved my life!”. Jennifer Robinson, Assange’s Australian legal counsel, worked on his case for 10 years. Jennifer Robinson  thanked the PM, the Australian ambassador  to Washington, DC. Dr Kevin Rudd, and other Australian officials without whose help Assange would not have been freed.

Julian Assange Is Back Home Now! says “Australian authorities had long lobbied the U.S. to drop its extradition efforts or come up with a diplomatic solution that would allow for Assange’s return home. “We wanted him brought home. Tonight that has happened,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters shortly after Assange’s arrival. “This is a culmination of careful, patient, and determined advocacy.”

The Saipan surprise: How delicate talks led to the unlikely end of Julian Assange’s 12-year saga

How Julian Assange Was Freed

Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister of the Liberal coalition from 8/24/18-5/22/22, said on 4/12/19 Julian Assange ‘won’t get any special treatment’.

Anthony Albanese of the Labor party became the Australian Prime Minister on 5/23/22.

Julian Assange’s lawyers reveal the twists and turns in WikiLeaks founder’s long road to freedom (with video)

Mr. Assange’s legal counsel Jennifer Robinson, who has been on his legal team since 2010, says Prime Minister Albanese has long taken an interest in his case….Within days of the Albanese government’s election in May 2022, the Foreign Minister Penny Wong raised the case with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken while in Tokyo for the Quad summit. The following month the prime minister spoke about Mr. Assange’s case for the first time with President Biden at the NATO conference in Madrid.

Just over a year after he was elected, Mr. Albanese attended the coronation of King Charles. In London he made his strongest comments to that point about the failure to find a diplomatic solution to the matter during an interview with the ABC.

It wasn’t known publicly at the time, but behind the scenes there was movement. The prime minister had given Mr. Assange’s legal team an important steer that things might be shifting in Washington. “The prime minister told me that he believed that a deal could be done in terms of a plea deal,” Ms. Robinson says. “But that negotiation had to happen with us as his legal team, and the US lawyers, so the prosecutors and my US co-counsel Barry Pollack.”

Kevin Rudd took up his position as Australia’s new ambassador in Washington in March last year. One of his first orders of business was to deal with the Assange case. Mr. Rudd was already very familiar with Mr. Assange’s plight. When he was foreign minister back in 2010, WikiLeaks released around 250,000 US diplomatic cables. Thirteen years later he was about to become a key conduit in preventing Mr. Assange from being extradited to the US and tried under the Espionage Act. “[He was] absolutely, crucial. Kevin was very invested in this,” Mr. Pollack says.

After her conversation with the prime minister about a possible plea deal, Ms. Robinson flew to the US to meet with Mr. Rudd. “We briefed Ambassador Rudd about the case and talked about what this was going to take,” she says. “In terms of the role he played in Washington, he effectively played a mediator role. He spoke to the DOJ, he spoke to other US government departments, making very clear that this was a priority of the prime minister and of the government of Australia that this case be resolved.”

Mr. Pollack, who had struggled to get a hearing from the DOJ initially, was suddenly able to enter meaningful talks about his client. “[Rudd] worked very doggedly, with both the Department of Justice and me trying to nudge each party to get to a resolution that was acceptable to both of us,” he says. “When you have a complex negotiation like that, having a third party almost serving as a mediator to try to bring the two sides together is enormously helpful. And Kevin played that role.”

Mr. Assange and his legal team had a number of key red lines when it came to negotiations – he didn’t want to serve any more time in prison, he did not want to enter a plea on US soil, he did not want restrictions on his free speech and no further prosecutions over what he had sourced and published. But despite the intervention of Ambassador Rudd, the negotiations soon ground to a halt.

“We worked on a deal for months that involved a series of misdemeanours … about mishandling classified information that would have allowed us and him to enter that plea remotely, and come home to Australia,” Ms Robinson says. “The DOJ then went quiet on that, and we heard nothing for months on end.” As talks went silent in Washington, things started to escalate in Canberra.

A cross-party delegation involving Greens senators David Shoebridge and Peter Whish-Wilson, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, independent MP Monique Ryan, Labor MP Tony Zappia, and Liberal senator Alex Antic travelled to Washington to meet with the DOJ and congressmen and women who could influence the debate.

Dr Ryan felt the trip helped convince those that mattered in the US capital that the Australian people and a wide cross section of the parliament wanted the case to end. “You never know exactly how things have gone. But I do think that the delegation, as a whole made a difference,” she said.

To further reinforce the widespread support inside the Australian parliament, Independent MP Andrew Wilkie moved a motion in the House of Representatives urging the US and the UK to end the prosecution of Mr Assange and allow him to return to Australia. It passed with a two-thirds majority.

Mr Pollack says the cross-party delegation and political agitation from inside Australia was critical in getting the DOJ to re-engage. “I think they made a difference. I think, the bipartisan support in Australia made a difference, and I think Prime Minister Albanese speaking out, made a difference.”

The other key factor emerging was that after years of fighting legal cases through the UK courts, Julian Assange’s battle to prevent his extradition to the US was coming to a head.

Last roll of the dice

In two days of hearings in London in February this year, Julian Assange sought leave to appeal to the High Court. It was seen as his last roll of the dice.

What much of the media missed at the time was it was also the US’s last chance to get the man they had been pursuing for years. Internal DOJ emails published by the Washington Post last week show that US lawyers were feeling the pressure. “The urgency here now has reached a critical point,” one of their trial attorneys wrote in an email. “The case will head to appeal and we will lose.”

The lawyers knew the US couldn’t guarantee Mr Assange free speech protections under the first amendment, an assurance the UK judges were asking for as part of his appeal. “I think they were under pressure on two fronts,” Ms Robinson says.

“First, there was a very real chance that we were going to win the extradition case on this first amendment ground because, in our view, the US could not provide a satisfactory assurance about protection under the First Amendment.” “But the other point that people miss too, is that the US was, I think concerned about him being extradited and having a very public Espionage Act prosecution of a journalist in an election year.”

Adding to the pressure on that front was the fact that American journalist Evan Gershkovich had been locked up in a Russian prison, at that point for close to a year, in pre-trial detention where he was facing what the US considered to be trumped up charges of espionage.

Ms Robinson believes this played into a renewed push for a plea deal. “Other governments were starting to do what the US was doing, which was using espionage legislation to prosecute journalists,” she says. “You have a US journalist in prison in Russia, Evan Gershkovich. And the US is trying to negotiate his release, and what is the first thing the Russian government is going to say to them? Look at what you’re doing to Julian Assange.”

Ms Robinson says in the lead-up to the court hearings in London she called the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and briefed him about the weaknesses in the US case. “After my conversations … [Mark Dreyfus] went and met the Attorney General Merrick Garland in the United States,” she says. “And I think that was significant to make clear the Australian government’s position, and also to set out the points that we had raised, which is, you may well lose this extradition case. And this is the moment to get the deal done.”

In May, two UK High Court judges, Dame Victoria Sharp and Justice Johnson, ruled that Julian Assange could appeal, including on first amendment grounds, putting even more pressure on the US to come up with a deal.

However, there was another major hurdle to clear. The US insisted on a felony plea which meant Mr Assange would have to attend court on US soil, in conflict with one of his red lines. “Julian was very firm that he did not want to come to the United States for fear that if he did, he would be detained on some other charges, or the Department of Defense or the CIA or somebody would, cause problems for him,” Mr Pollack says.

A creative solution was found — to hold proceedings in Saipan — part of a US Commonwealth in the Pacific. “That was a proposal by the Department of Justice,” Mr Pollack says. “I think when it became apparent to them, that we were not going to move on that, they came up with a very creative proposal that met our needs and, that’s what led to there being resolution.”

According to Mr Pollack, the US argued that Mr Assange should serve another three years in prison, but backed down on that proposal when it became clear he was unwilling to accept it. The negotiations over an agreed statement of facts took time as the parties argued over key points.

“I think it’s really important to highlight what’s not in the plea deal, and that statement of facts,” says Ms Robinson. “The first is no actual harm caused to any individual. The US government could not identify one individual who was entitled to restitution as a result of these publications. Now, this comes after years and years of government statements saying that they put lives at risk that people were killed because of these disclosures. “The second point that’s really important, is after years of accusing him of hacking, of somehow doing something different to journalism, if you read that statement of facts, it is about receiving and publishing information from a source that is absolutely journalistic activity.”

In late June, around a week before Mr Assange’s release, the parties finally came to an agreement on a plea deal.  A document that had all the provisions that both parties agreed to was completed, reviewed and sent to Julian Assange inside Belmarsh prison. “Julian signed it, sent it back to me, and I signed it and sent it to the Department of Justice,” Mr Pollack says. “Once we had a signed document, it certainly felt like we’d gotten across the finish line.”

Ms Robinson says it is hard to believe it all finally came together. “This is a deal that was being done with the US administration that’s not known for compromise, with a client who’s not known for compromise,” she says. “It involved incredibly complex negotiations with prosecutors that had to be approved at the highest levels of the Department of Justice, working across three different jurisdictions with a client in prison, who we didn’t have ready access to.

“So, it was incredibly difficult, logistically, politically and legally. “It’s still sinking in that we managed to pull it off and that he’s home. It’s been a very long time coming.”

Video available here

Inside the closed-door meeting in Washington DC to free WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Delegates told the room that not only had the government changed in Australia, but public sentiment had as well, with the vast majority of Australians now wanting Assange to return home.

Their mission was to convince the department responsible for prosecuting Assange that the dial had shifted in Australia and that its people, and its politicians, wanted the WikiLeaks publisher to be freed and returned home. But the reception they received surprised the Australian delegation. “They were not particularly warm,” Dr Ryan said. “There was a real sense of opposition to our involvement, as in, ‘Why are you here? You know you cannot influence this process. It’s really got nothing to do with politicians,'” she said. “There was an attempt to sort of brush us away, and we weren’t interested in that.”

The delegation raised several issues including freedom of speech, shifting public sentiment in Australia, the US-Australia alliance, and jurisdictional rights.

Senator Whish-Wilson believed two main issues cut through during the meeting — public opinion in Australia and the impact on the US’s reputation globally. “I was watching when they were suddenly taking notes on a couple of occasions. Firstly, when we raised the issue that the political situation had shifted [in Australia],” he said. “And also that the Chinese government had commented around [Australian journalist] Cheng Lei’s imprisonment … that they were criticising the US saying, ‘How can you point the finger at us when you are going after Assange?'”

Dr Ryan also made the point that at a time when Russia, China, and other authoritarian nations were locking up journalists, it was not a good look for the US to continue its prosecution of Assange. “I’d taken some Chinese newspapers with me. And I said, ‘Look, here’s evidence in the Chinese press where this case has been used as an example of the US not respecting freedom of the press,'” she said. “In the Chinese media’s perception, there was a degree of hypocrisy in the US accusing China of that sort of action. They were really surprised by that.”

Mr Zappia also highlighted his concerns about how US actions were hindering the global fight for freedom of expression. “I told them it diminished Australia’s ability to stand on behalf of others being detained in authoritarian countries when Julian was being held inside Belmarsh Prison,” the Labor MP said. Senator Shoebridge says the delegation came together because of the advocacy of Assange’s family who believed the time was right for a group of politicians to make a push in Washington. The group acknowledged the important roles played by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Australia’s US Ambassador Kevin Rudd, Assange’s family, his legal team, and the Australian people.

Pivotal Role of Australian Government in Assange’s Release

How Julian Assange’s plea deal and release was negotiated 6/27/28

Julian Assange has spent his first 24 hours home in Australia. Now the backstory of how his plea deal and release was negotiated can be told. His lawyer Jennifer Robinson travelled with him as he flew home from the UK. Robinson speaks to 7.30’s Sarah Ferguson.

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post

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