Relentless lobbying and a garden party ambush: how Australia pushed for Julian Assange’s freedom

<span>WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walks free from a court in the US Pacific island territory of Saipan, after pleading guilty to violating US espionage law. It brought an end to an extraordinary 14 year legal saga.</span><span>Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters</span>
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange walks free from a court in the US Pacific island territory of Saipan, after pleading guilty to violating US espionage law. It brought an end to an extraordinary 14 year legal saga.Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Standing outside a US court on the island of Saipan in the western Pacific Ocean, lawyer Jennifer Robinson hailed the “historic” plea deal to secure the freedom of fellow Australian citizen Julian Assange.

After denouncing the case against the WikiLeaks founder as “the greatest threat to the first amendment in the 21st century”, Robinson gave a shoutout to the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, “for his statesmanship, his principled leadership and his diplomacy”. It was those outstanding qualities, she said, “which made this outcome possible”.

Related: Julian Assange walks free after pleading guilty to US espionage charge in Saipan court

Shortly before Assange, 52, boarded a plane to be reunited with his family in Australia on Wednesday, Robinson was effusive: Albanese had “stood true to his word” and “we wouldn’t be here today” without his support.

“He raised [the issue of Assange] at the highest level, 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 said.

Even when news of the plea deal broke early on Tuesday morning and WikiLeaks confirmed Assange had been released from London’s Belmarsh prison and had flown out of the UK, Australian officials were anxious not to do anything that could doom the long-awaited breakthrough at the 11th hour.

It was the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes diplomatic lobbying, which was given a big boost when Albanese took office in 2022, backed up by existing but ever-growing cross-party campaigns and community advocacy.

‘Julian was pretty much friendless’

The Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson becomes emotional when he describes the early efforts campaigning for Assange’s freedom.

He says that when Assange’s father, John Shipton, came to Parliament House six or seven years ago “he only managed to secure a couple of meetings in this place”.

One meeting was with Whish-Wilson. Another was with the independent MP Andrew Wilkie, the former Australian intelligence analyst who became known for himself blowing the whistle on the lack of justification for Australia joining the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Julian was pretty much friendless,” says Whish-Wilson, reflecting on that period. It was hard to get the media to take an interest in Shipton’s campaigning, he remembers.

In the subsequent years, however, one notable MP agreed to meet Assange’s father. Prior to becoming prime minister, Albanese had several lunches with Shipton. Shipton was left with the impression that the longtime Labor left faction member would do whatever he could to free his son.

But after being sworn in to office, Albanese opted to pursue the matter largely behind closed doors. In one of his first press conferences as prime minister, he was asked by the Guardian whether he stood by his past criticism of the continued pursuit of Assange and whether he would encourage the US to drop the charges. His answer was abrupt: “My position is that not all foreign affairs is best done with the loudhailer.”

Some of Assange’s fervent supporters wanted Albanese to take a more forceful public stance but the prime minister always insisted “we’re engaging diplomatically to try to achieve an outcome rather than try to achieve a headline”.

The strategy has included Albanese and multiple senior ministers raising the case with their US and UK counterparts, expressing their desire for the matter to be brought “to a close” given the long time that Assange had already been detained; and also the fact that the whistleblower who provided the documents to Assange, Chelsea Manning, had her 35-year sentence commuted long ago.

The Australian government was careful in public to say it respected US and UK legal processes, and ministers did not say outright that the US must “drop the charges” or abandon its bid to extradite Assange from the UK.

But the government found ways to send some important public signals of its interest in the case.

One such moment was in April 2023, when the Australian high commissioner to the UK paid Assange a well-publicised visit in Belmarsh prison. Officially, this visit by Stephen Smith – a former foreign affairs and defence minister in previous Labor governments – fell in the category of a consular welfare check. But the high-profile visit no doubt attracted attention in the halls of power in both London and Washington, signalling Canberra wanted to see progress.

Related: ‘This case ends with me’: inside the Saipan court as Julian Assange’s legal saga comes to an end

The former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd was also pressing the case in Washington. Before Albanese appointed his former cabinet colleague Rudd as Australian ambassador to the US, Rudd was on the record as supporting Assange’s bid for freedom.

A major setback

The largely behind-the-scenes strategy appeared to be facing a major setback in July 2023, when Australia’s foreign and defence ministers hosted their US counterparts in Brisbane for annual strategic talks.

Documents obtained by the Guardian under freedom of information laws show Australian officials provided talking points to the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, stating: “The Australian government has been clear in our view that Mr Assange’s case has dragged on for long enough and needs to be brought to a conclusion.”

However, in a nod to sensitivity of the matter, the talking points also acknowledged Australia could not “intervene” in the legal proceedings: “We are doing what we can government to government but there are limits until Mr Assange’s legal processes have concluded.”

The issue was discussed behind closed doors, but the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was particularly blunt during a post-meeting joint press conference.

“I think it’s very important that our friends here understand our concerns about this matter,” Blinken said of Assange, noting his “alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of our country”.

It sounded like America’s top diplomat was pushing back strongly at the idea that Assange could get off scot-free.

Robinson, the longtime lawyer for Assange, was in the audience at the National Press Club in Canberra on 17 April 2023 to hear Wong say “some of Mr Assange’s advocates have been raising – rightly – whether or not the current conditions at Belmarsh are appropriate”. The foreign affairs minister promised it would be something she would ask Smith “to engage on”.

Related: Julian Assange to be reunited with family as he returns home to Australia

Robinson, speaking to the Guardian after the event, welcomed this new language, but said: “We want to see action.” Robinson stressed Australia’s status as a loyal US ally and asked: “If Secretary Blinken can be calling on Russia to immediately release a journalist being charged with espionage, then why can’t we ask the same of the US?”

A Kennedy intervenes

In February last year, the Labor MP Julian Hill sensed an opportunity to take up the matter with the US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy. Kennedy, the daughter of the late US president John F Kennedy, is a high-profile envoy who has friends in high places in the Biden administration.

“I ambushed her at a garden party that she was hosting – a very polite ambush with a plate – and really pressed for the need for her to meet with us,” Hill recalls.

“And she graciously did so.”

That led to Kennedy agreeing to receive a delegation from the Bring Julian Assange Home parliamentary group at the sprawling US embassy compound in the heart of Canberra’s diplomatic hub of Yarralumla on 9 May 2023.

Everyone was on their best behaviour: after the meeting, the MPs said they had received a “fair” and “respectful” hearing and thanked Kennedy for the opportunity.

Australian MPs wanted to ensure Kennedy was well briefed on strength of feeling, across party political lines, in Canberra that Assange was becoming an obstacle in closer US-Australia relations.

Those relations were already very deep, of course. In 2021, Australia joined the Aukus nuclear-powered submarine pact that some US officials have openly boasted will “bind” the countries together for decades to come, and there are increasing plans for US military rotations to Australia. But this consular case was becoming an irritant.

Months later, Kennedy would spark speculation a plea deal could be on the cards, when she told the Nine newspapers that “there absolutely could be a resolution”.

Australia’s diplomatic efforts were reinforced by the efforts of parliamentarians who could speak up more forcefully. A cross-party delegation of Assange supporters travelled to the US to press the matter with Republican and Democratic lawmakers last year. Australian MPs signed an open letter that was published in the Washington Post.

Albanese raised the case directly with the US president, Joe Biden, on an official visit to Washington in October 2023.

That outreach was backed up three months later when Australia’s attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, visited Washington and raised it with his counterpart, Merrick Garland, who runs the Department of Justice.

Australians grow impatient

There were signs, however, that the Australian government was starting to grow impatient with the lack of tangible results from the quiet-diplomacy strategy.

This was most apparent in February this year when Albanese and his cabinet members voted in favour of a parliamentary motion urging the UK and US to allow Assange to return to Australia.

Wilkie, an independent MP, was the one to move the motion, but it did not take the government by surprise. On the contrary, the wording was discussed in advance with the government in the hope of ensuring it was something Albanese’s team could support.

The overwhelming vote in favour of the motion was a gentle but direct nudge to the US from its close ally to get a move along with a solution.

Some of Assange’s supporters in Canberra were worried that a breakthrough would become more difficult to achieve the closer the US got to its presidential election in November.

That is because the former US president Donald Trump was facing multiple criminal indictments, and Biden was stressing that the Department of Justice was acting completely independently in those cases.

The theory was that if there was some overt presidential intervention to spare Assange, that might complicate Biden’s argument over the Trump cases.

Biden confirmed publicly for the first time in April this year that the US was “considering” Australia’s request, in a huge boost for his supporters.

‘Getting the job done’

Even on Tuesday, when news of the plea deal broke, many of Assange’s supporters in Australian politics were nervous.

The cross-party parliamentary group announced it would be holding a press conference on Tuesday morning. But that was abruptly cancelled. “We didn’t want to jinx it yesterday, and we’ve all been very disciplined,” Hill says.

Related: Julian Assange: the WikiLeaks founder’s fight for freedom – in pictures

Smith, the Australian high commissioner to the UK, accompanied Assange on the privately chartered flight from London to Saipan. Officials point out this form of ambassadorial escort is consistent with what happened when other high-profile Australians have won their freedom, such as when the journalist Cheng Lei was released from detention in China late last year.

Given the court was a US one, Rudd flew from Washington to meet Assange and accompany him to the hearing where the WikiLeaks founder pleaded guilty to a single charge and was immediately freed, taking into account time already served.

Robinson thanked Rudd “for his adept diplomacy and his relentless efforts in Washington that facilitated our negotiations with the US government and ensured this outcome”. She said Smith was also “tireless” in pursuing a solution “that enabled us all to be here today”.

Both Rudd and Smith boarded the plane with Assange in Saipan as he flew to Canberra to be reunited with family late on Wednesday.

Albanese finally allowed himself to express relief about the difficult diplomatic victory.

“This work has been complex and it has been considered,” the prime minister told parliament.

“This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like – it means getting the job done.”