Julian Assange case ‘politicised’, says whistleblower’s lawyer

Jennifer Robinson speaks to Al Jazeera about the case and what the future may hold for Assange, who is in poor health.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, attends his trial at the Old Bailey in London, on October 1 2020 [Will Oliver/EPA]

Jennifer Robinson, an Australian-born lawyer, first met WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in October 2010 when she first advised the whistleblowing organisation.

She has been a member of Assange’s legal team ever since.

She practises law at the high-profile Doughty Street Chambers in London, UK, and has an illustrious record of working on famous free-speech cases, including advising The New York Times during its phone-hacking investigations in London. She has also engaged in free-speech litigation before the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

Assange has been indicted in the US for 17 counts under the Espionage Act and one count under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He continues to claim his innocence.

He could face up to 175 years in prison if he is found guilty in the US on allegations that he played a role in “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the US”.

Further complicating matters, on June 24, The US Department of Justice issued a superseding indictment of Assange – a new indictment that replaces an older one and may contain new charges.

The US claimed the new indictment did not contain new charges but that it broadened the “scope of the conspiracy” and included accusations of recruiting hackers to provide Wikileaks with documents.

Robinson spoke to Al Jazeera about Assange’s extradition hearing, which concluded on 1 October:

Al Jazeera: How is Julian Assange doing right now?

Robinson: His physical and mental state are in serious decline. His health is suffering because of the various forms of restraint on his liberty since he was forcibly removed from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012. His mental health is in a precarious state.

Al Jazeera: What would a typical day during the trial look like for Assange?

Robinson: During Assange’s confinement in the high-security Belmarsh prison in London, he was strip-searched whenever he arrived at court. He was driven back and forth from Old Bailey court at the back of the prison van. After a day in court, he would be driven “home” to Belmarsh and then strip-searched again. During the trial, he would spend his days between the cells downstairs in the court building and the courtroom upstairs.

He still spends 23 hours a day in his cell. Although he has not formally been placed in solitary confinement, the conditions of his detention effectively amount to solitary confinement.

Al Jazeera: When was the last time Assange saw his family?

Assange has had no visitors for six months. He had no meetings with family since all visits were cancelled. We, his lawyers, could also not do videoconferencing with him. The medical advice was that he should not do videoconferencing.

Because of his pre-existing healthcare concerns, he could only get phone calls. I am not in a position to comment on his health. But in his visits to psychiatric facilities, he has made clear that he is determined to [take his own life] if he gets extradited.

Al Jazeera: What are your concerns over whether Assange has received a fair trial?

We have a number of procedural concerns arising particularly from the superseding indictment, issued by the United States.

It is completely unprecedented for the receiving state to issue a superseding indictment so late in a trial. It meant that we absolutely did not have enough time to prepare witnesses – we sought to present evidence on the new charges but the court refused to hear the evidence.

We have long had concerns about the politicisation of the process in the United States. We have serious concerns about the way the US has behaved so far in the trial, particularly by bringing new accusations. It indicates that Assange will not get a fair trial should he be extradited.

Our concerns are shared by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, which put out a very strong statement during the course of the hearing.

Julian Assange arrest
Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of Wikileaks, and Jennifer Robinson talk to the media outside the Westminster Magistrates Court after Julian Assange was arrested in London, April 11, 2019 [Hannah McKay/REUTERS]

Al Jazeera: The decision on extraditing Assange will be delivered by Judge Vanessa Baraitser on January 4. What do you expect will happen next? And what conditions will he face should he ultimately be extradited to the US?

Whichever way the judge decides, the decision on whether he should be extradited is almost certain to go appeal and can extend to a number of years. The judge stated that Assange will remain in custody until January 4. Assange is likely to remain in custody in a high-security prison. In these circumstances, an accused will usually be out on bail but the court has refused bail.

We heard from an expert witness during the trial that Assange will be held in a high-security prison if he gets extradited to the US. These maximum-security prisons have been described as the “darkest black hole of the US prison system”.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Source: Al Jazeera