|Legal adviser for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Jennifer Robinson is back at Sydney University to lecture in public interest law for a few months. Picture: Renee Nowytarger|
AS we approached the group of Oxford graduates milling outside the ersatz grandeur of St Paul's college dining hall, the chatter subsided a little.
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All eyes were on my companion, Jennifer Robinson. She always had a habit of making an impact. But from our days at Balliol College I never expected her to attain international legal stardom, at least not so quickly.
Robinson, 31, became a legal adviser to Julian Assange in October 2010, a month before he burst into global consciousness. The "world's first stateless media organisation", as Robinson terms WikiLeaks, had released thousands of classified American diplomatic cables into the public domain, embarrassing and infuriating the US government.
"Julian Assange should be feted as Australia's most decorated contributor to journalism," Robinson says, "yet he is vilified for uncovering gross abuses of state power." My friend has traipsed the globe advocating for Assange's rights both at law and in principle, in the process becoming one of the most recognisable faces of WikiLeaks.
This week leaked emails from a US private intelligence firm suggested Assange might soon face further charges in the US, possibly under the Espionage Act. "We have long been concerned about the risk of US extradition," Robinson says. "I expect they are waiting for the outcome of the Swedish extradition."
Assange has been stuck in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden for alleged sexual assault, which the Supreme Court is due to resolve any day now.
Robinson is passionate about human rights, free speech and journalistic freedom, as well as the need for greater transparency in government.
Now full-time with the Bertha Foundation, a South African NGO that sponsors individuals uniquely placed to prompt social and economic change, Robinson has returned to Sydney for a few months to take up an adjunct lectureship in public interest law at the University of Sydney.
At the annual Oxford alumni dinner in Sydney this month we swapped some memories from our time at the university and after the main course the event organiser convinced her to make an impromptu speech.
I've always found remarkable Robinson's ability to switch from an effervescent companion on the social circuit to hardnosed interlocutor.
"May you be involved in a lawsuit in which you are right," she said, opening her speech with the old legal proverb.
Given what is ahead it was apt. Robinson fears Assange will be detained for years as a result of US charges, whatever happens with the Swedish case.
"I'm confident a challenge under the first amendment of the US constitution will ultimately see Assange walk free, but we need only look to the treatment of Bradley Manning to know what Julian will suffer in the meantime," she says.
Certainly the plight of Manning, the hapless American soldier on trial, provides a foreboding example. Arrested in May 2010 for allegedly disclosing information to WikiLeaks, he is still incarcerated.
In the week before Christmas Robinson was in Maryland observing the criminal proceedings.
"I can't believe the media's relative lack of interest in the Manning trial," she says. "Here is a man who's been locked up for about 600 days in solitary confinement and conditions amounting to torture, and he's still waiting to be put on trial."
For Robinson , the pursuit of Assange, an Australian citizen, reflects poorly on the federal government too. "Quite aside from wrongfully accusing Assange of illegal conduct, the Australian government's response to WikiLeaks has been incredibly disappointing; what is the point of the US alliance if we can't find out what they are planning to do with one of our own citizens?"
Until Robinson became embroiled in WikiLeaks she was known among her peers for her advocacy for West Papuans. A visit to Indonesia in 2002 while a student at the Australian National University entrenched her interest in human rights.
"I couldn't believe the injustices and violence suffered by the West Papuans under Indonesian rule, only 300km north of our shores, and no one in Australia seems to know what happens there," she says.
"West Papuans have as much right to self-determination as the East Timorese."
"She tempers her idealism with a healthy does of pragmatism," longtime Oxford friend Albert Alla says. At Oxford, Robinson fostered a mix of admiration and envy. "She's is a hard pill to swallow for potential competitors, casting a shadow on most of them," Alla adds.
Robinson 's achievements are bolstered by an impressive resume. But her academic achievements -- university medallist at ANU in law, and a Master of Philosophy in law from Balliol College on a Rhodes Scholarship -- are more interesting in light of her background.
She grew up in Berry on the NSW south coast and attended Bomaderry High School. "From memory about two out of 50 Rhodes scholars at Oxford came from non-selective state schools," she recalls.
"I started a DPhil at Oxford but I'm more of a doer and wanted to get my hands dirty in real cutting-edge legal work."
Part-time work for Geoffrey Robertson throughout her Oxford studies led in 2008 to full-time work at a boutique law firm defending journalists and media organisations -- and also to an introduction to Assange. She became Robertson's instructing solicitor, and worked for clients such as Bloomberg and The New York Times. She intervened on behalf of media defence organisations in the Max Mosley case before the European Court of Human Rights.
"I am patriotically Australian, proud of our country and want to contribute to defending the progressive and reformist political history that has made our country so great," Robinson says.
Like many expatriates, Robinson is torn about whether to return permanently or stay abroad. A glint in her eye suggested to me one vocation would bring her back for sure. When pressed she won't rule out an Australian political career.