'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (2024)

Inside a meeting room deep inside the Robert F Kennedy Building in Washington DC last September, representatives of the US Department of Justice (DoJ) must've wondered what hit them.

A cross-party delegation of jet-lagged and obstinate Australian parliamentarians had just arrived to advocate for Julian Assange's release. The officials were about to hear the kind of arguments that were not normally ventilated in the building known locally as "Main Justice".

The meeting lasted over an hour. Six of those present inside the room have described those conversations in various ways to ABC Investigations — including as being "robust", "respectful" and even at times "aggressive".

Now that Assange has been released, participants in that meeting feel free to talk about how their arguments were conveyed, how they were received, and the influence that they had inside the walls of the DoJ.

"They were surprised, I would say blindsided by our delegation," Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson told the ABC.

"We no longer have a PM [Scott Morrison] who boasts about having Mike Pompeo on speed dial. They weren't aware of how much things had shifted in Australia."

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (1)

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.

"They expressed scepticism about this, but I said they had been talking to the wrong people if that was their view," said Senator Whish-Wilson.

Sitting on one side of the long mahogany table were three US departmental officials and a media adviser.

On the other side, as diverse a collection of Australian politicians as you could imagine – Senator Whish-Wilson, his fellow Greens senator David Shoebridge, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, independent MP Monique Ryan, Labor MP Tony Zappia, and Liberal senator Alex Antic.

Also present was Julian Assange's brother Gabriel Shipton and Rohan Wenn, an adviser to independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who could not make the trip.

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (2)

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."

For Mr Shipton, it was a confronting meeting. He said at times he found it "aggressive".

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (3)

It was difficult to hear arguments made by departmental officials, who he said wanted his brother jailed for the rest of his life.

"They were saying Julian had to face justice and that he was avoiding justice by fighting extradition. These guys (the Australian politicians) were arguing back at the DoJ. All of them did," he said.

"They all picked up on a different piece of the argument — watching them all come together and work together was something else. I was very impressed."

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

Senator Whish-Wilson says Mr Joyce played an important role.

"He said, 'I was the deputy PM, I've been the acting PM. I have been the deputy head of the National Security Committee for many years, and I don't agree with what Assange has done. But it was not illegal and this extra-territorial overreach [by the US] is a precedent that cannot stand.'"

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (4)

Dr Ryan said that the US officials pushed back against their arguments, claiming Assange's freedom was purely a legal matter, not a political one.

It was then that Mr Joyce brought Johnny Depp's dogs into it, raising the infamous case in 2015 when the then-minister for agriculture threatened to euthanise the Hollywood star's pooches — Pistol and Boo — due to quarantine breaches.

Dr Ryan said Mr Joyce suggested to the meeting that political considerations inevitably played a role in these sorts of matters.

"Basically, he said there had been pressure placed on him at the time and if it had been left to him, Pistol, Boo, Johnny, and Amber would be behind bars in Australia."

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?'"

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (5)

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.

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (6)

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.

"It would be fair to say within that hyper-partisan environment, they didn't know what to make of this group of assorted Australian politicians who on paper had so much that divided them, that were all pushing for this same outcome, and all prized Julian's freedom."

All the participants ABC Investigations spoke to agreed it was difficult to gauge the influence their delegation had on any eventual plea deal, but Dr Ryan said the delegation had been talking over the past day and believed the meeting helped.

"You never know exactly how things have gone. But I do think that the delegation as a whole made a difference," she said.

"It felt powerful at the time and subsequently as well."

Mr Wilkie, who has long campaigned for Assange's release, could not make the trip, but his adviser, Mr Wenn, was part of the delegation and believed the meeting with the DoJ, among many things, made a difference.

"By the end of the meeting it was clear the delegation convinced them it was not a sleeping issue, and it was a live problem that needed a political solution," he said.

The meeting was part of a whirlwind trip where the MPs met with Democratic and Republican congressmen and women as well as the US Department of State.

Senator Shoebridge said they left Washington DC without any assurances.

"We didn't come away from Washington with a rolled gold guarantee. Our job was to rekindle the campaign to remind Washington about the importance of Julian Assange and of truth-telling," he said.

'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (7)

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.

"I want to stress it was a small part of a years-long global solidarity campaign, without which Julian's release could not have been achieved," Senator Shoebridge said.

The Department of Justice declined to be interviewed.

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'There was an attempt to brush us away': How six Australian MPs took the cause of Julian Assange to Washington (2024)
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