How Australia's quiet diplomacy led Julian Assange to freedom

By Kirsty Needham, Lewis Jackson and Michael Holden

CANBERRA/SYDNEY/LONDON (Reuters) -After Julian Assange was released by a court on the remote U.S. Pacific territory of Saipan on Wednesday, ending a 14-year legal battle, the WikiLeaks founder's lawyer first thanked Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for making the outcome possible.

Jennifer Robinson, the Australian attorney of Assange, said diplomacy and intense lobbying with the highest authorities in the U.S. played a big role in Assange walking free, after spending five years in a high-security British prison and seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

"At every opportunity, and when Australian officials were making outreach to the U.S., they knew that they were acting with the full authority of the prime minister of Australia," Robinson told reporters outside the courtroom in Saipan.

Albanese has claimed Assange's release as a win for the country, which leveraged its security ties with Washington and London to strengthen its case to resolve the plight of an Australian citizen.

"This work has been complex and it has been considered. This is what standing up for Australians around the world looks like," Albanese, leader of a centre-left Labor government, told parliament on Wednesday.

Assange, who landed in Australia on Wednesday evening, had faced a maximum jail sentence of 175 years after being charged with 17 counts of breaching the U.S. Espionage Act and a hacking-related charge. Under a deal revealed on Tuesday, he pled guilty to a single charge of espionage and walked free.

The deal gained momentum as the U.S. faced growing challenges in the UK over the legality of extraditing Assange, while Australian lawmakers and diplomats raised the heat in Washington and London.

"I wish to thank the prime minister, Albanese, the officials who have been working ... on securing Julian's release," his wife Stella said shortly after Assange touched down in Canberra.

"I'd also like to thank the Australian people who have made this possible, because without their support, there would not be the political space to be able to achieve Julian's freedom."

POLITICAL SHIFT

A decade ago under a conservative government, there was little political will in Canberra to back Assange's case. But things changed in 2023 when dozens of lawmakers across the political spectrum swung in behind the campaign to bring him home, his father, John Shipton, told Reuters.

That swing culminated in the passage of a parliamentary motion in February this year calling for Assange's release.

Shipton told Reuters the Australian government had been "nothing short of magnificent" and praised former prime minister Kevin Rudd and former defence minister Stephen Smith, Australia's top envoys to the U.S. and Britain.

Australian conservative lawmaker Barnaby Joyce, a former deputy prime minister, was among a cross-party group of politicians who travelled to Washington in September to lobby for a resolution.

Joyce said on Wednesday the trip made the case on Capitol Hill that Australian politicians wanted to "get this thing done", because it was a distraction to Australia's security alliance with the United States.

Long-time advisor to the Australian campaign for Assange, lawyer Greg Barns, said U.S. politicians saw on that trip that "this wasn't a party political issue".

One government official who did not want to be identified said the first big break for Assange came in January 2021, when then shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus issued a statement calling for the case against Assange to end after a British court found that it would be unjust to extradite him to the U.S.

"This was the first indication that a major political party in Australia was supporting the cause to free Assange," the official said.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

When Labor won power in May 2022, Assange finally had state diplomatic support behind him. Later that year Albanese called for his release on the floor of the House of Representatives, the first time a Prime Minister had mentioned Assange in parliament since 2012.

"Enough is enough, it is time for this matter to be brought to a conclusion," he said.

"My position is clear and has been made clear to the U.S. administration that it is time that this matter be brought to a close. This is an Australian citizen."

Behind the scenes, Albanese and senior cabinet colleagues including Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Attorney General Dreyfus used visits to the U.S. to lobby their counterparts, according to the government official.

The appointment of Smith and Rudd to the top diplomatic jobs in London and Washington in late 2022 added two more sympathetic lobbyists for Assange's cause.

Smith visited Assange in Belmarsh prison in April 2023, the first such visit by Australia's top U.K. diplomat since he was imprisoned four years earlier.

Deeper ties between Australia and the U.S. through the AUKUS security pact helped push diplomatic efforts along, said Mark Kenny, a professor at Australian National University.

"It looks pretty odd if we're getting ever closer to the U.S. and yet we don’t have a special relationship with the U.S. such that we can advocate and get concessions for an Australian citizen," Kenny said.

FINAL DETAILS

As recently as last July, U.S. officials appeared determined to prosecute Assange. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that month Australia needed to understand U.S. concerns.

However, a month later, U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy said a deal was possible.

After the cross-party delegation of Australian politicians travelled to Washington in September to speak to Republican and Democrat lawmakers about the Assange case, the Biden administration appeared to be softening its response.

Joe Biden said in April, "We are considering it," when asked by media about Australia’s request to end Assange’s prosecution.

But it was the London High Court's decision in May to allow Assange to appeal against his extradition that triggered the breakthrough in negotiations over a plea deal according to his wife Stella.

The court's decision meant the legal battle over extradition would likely be delayed for months more.

Barry Pollack, Assange's U.S. lawyer said the final talks were protracted and had taken place in fits and starts over several months.

"We were not close to any sort of resolution until a few weeks ago when the Department of Justice re-engaged and there have been very intense negotiations over the last few weeks," he told the news conference in Canberra.

He said it was important the final deal would be the end of the matter, and that Assange would not go to the United States in any form and thus he entered his plea in Saipan.

The deal marks the end of a legal saga following WikiLeaks' mass release of secret U.S. documents in 2010 - one of the largest security breaches in U.S. military history.

As Assange was moved from Belmarsh prison to London's Stansted airport in the dead of night on Monday, the secrecy was such that his children weren't told in case they spilled details about his release, according to his wife.

In a global outpouring of support following the news, a crowd funding campaign to raise the $520,000 owed to the Australian government for the flights had already raised almost 330,000 pounds ($418,000) by Wednesday evening.

"It took millions of people. It took people working behind the scenes, people protesting on the streets for days and weeks and months and years," Stella Assange said. "And we achieved it."

($1 = 0.7897 pounds)

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham in Canberra, Lewis Jackson in Sydney and Michael Holden in London; Additional reporting by Kate Holton in London; Editing by Praveen Menon, Sonali Paul, Alexandra Hudson)