Assange misunderstood, claims legal eagle

By Andrew Stone

Lawyer says there's more to WikiLeaks founder than meets the eye, writes Andrew Stone

Julian Assange, insists his legal confidante Jennifer Robinson, is terribly misunderstood.

The WikiLeaks founder, holed up in a London embassy to elude Swedish prosecutors can, she concedes, be difficult. But Assange needs to be hardnosed "to achieve the things he's done," asserts Robinson.

Lawyer Robinson is determined, upbeat, and a serious achiever herself. Two degrees, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, fluent in the Indonesian language Bahasa, a disarming needle in the flank of authorities irritated by advocates of human rights and media freedoms, the 32-year-old has blazed across the international legal circuit for half a decade.

Her passionate defence of whistleblowers and democratic principles has placed her at the heart of mega-cases which continue to create headlines: besides remaining on Assange's legal team, she advised the New York Times in the phone-hacking investigation which shook the Murdoch media empire, continues to monitor the United States case against Private Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of passing damaging US military secrets to WikiLeaks, agitates for West Papuan independence, and mentors young lawyers for the philanthropic Bertha Foundation, a Geneva-based human rights group.

"I wear a lot of hats," Robinson cheerfully admits.

This week the Australian whizzed through New Zealand in support of West Papuan exile Benny Wenda. The trip, she said with a laugh, was a roaring success because it got the little noticed political cause some airtime after Parliament's Speaker David Carter banned Wenda from speaking in a room at Parliament. Risk-adverse Foreign Affairs officials, nervous at offending Jakarta's implacable opposition to West Papuan independence, cautioned against allowing Wenda speaking rights on parliamentary property.

"They helped us a lot," said a happy Robinson.

The eldest of six siblings, Robinson grew up in the New South Wales coastal town of Berry. Her dad trains racehorses, and her mother teaches. Her connections to Indonesian politics go back firstly to her teenage years when her youthful eyes were opened to poverty on Australia's doorstep during a high school trip to the Muslim nation.

A few years later, she returned as a graduate student, and got caught up in the prosecution of Wenda for allegedly inciting a fatal attack on a police station. During the case, Wenda escaped from custody, got a false passport and eventually made it to Britain, where Robinson helped him win asylum and then citizenship.

She says that both Wellington and Canberra pay lip-service to gross abuses of human rights in the resource-rich West Papua in their pursuit of steady relations with Indonesia's rulers. Pragmatism, in her view, over-rides more pressing humanitarian needs in a small distinct region which has become "one of the most brutal places on the planet".

Her path to the door of Julian Assange arose from her time at Oxford. She worked part-time for London-based Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson - an author, human rights advocate and Rhodes scholar - who in turn introduced her to Assange, yet another Australian. It was 2010, and just before WikiLeaks published the Iraq War Logs, revealing US military abuses in Iraq - the largest classified leak in history.

Nearly three years later, with Assange in asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge, beyond the reach of Swedish police investigating sexual assault claims and isolated from former supporters, Robinson remains unswervingly in his corner.

"I'll continue to support him," she avers.

Why, when everyone from his media partners at the Guardian to heiress Jemina Khan, who shelled out £30,000 ($55,000) for Assange's bail, has given up on him? "Look," responds Robinson, shifting gear a little: "Not everyone has the opportunity that I have to engage with him. The way he is portrayed in the media is different to the way he is in person.

"He is engaging, warm, far more self-deprecating than anyone realises and very concerned about his staff."

Assange, she agrees, can be uncompromising, but is also "incredibly brave. I can't imagine anyone else standing in his shoes."

She says the media focus on Assange's trying personality obscures the bigger issue.

"I'm astounded the press hasn't identified its own self-interest in all of this. You cannot distinguish between what WikiLeaks and what the traditional media does ... at its core receiving and publishing information is what the press does. It's exactly what WikiLeaks does."

Revelations about torture, spying, corruption and human rights abuses had become public knowledge because of WikiLeaks, Robinson remarked. "It's one thing to know what's going on; it's another thing to have it on the record. In this respect WikiLeaks has been a game-changer."

Of the sex allegations against Assange, Robinson says simply that he continues to deny them. She was certain though that he wouldn't risk going to Sweden while the real risk of extradition to the US remained. The door was open for Swedish investigators to question Assange in London but they had refused: "One can only speculate about their reasons." Everyone, she adds, wants to see the case resolved "in a way which does not result in his extradition to the US."

When she returns to Britain, Robinson expects to put some time into Interpol "red notices" , which the global police agency issues in their thousands. In her view the electronic "wanted posters" can be abused to deprive dissidents and activists of their liberty and reputation. Red notices were issued against Wenda and Assange, though after a fight, a team which included Robinson got Wenda's notice lifted, which meant he could beat the drum for West Papua in New Zealand this week.

There's another pull drawing the determined young advocate back to the UK. In London, she'll hook up with her touch rugby team, a line-up she says includes "lots of mad Kiwis".

- NZ Herald

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