Stella Assange: Why Isn't Julian Assange a Free Man?

Stella Assange discusses the imprisonment of her husband on the third episode of Just Asking Questions.


Julian Assange was arrested outside England's Ecuadorian embassy after Ecuador's president revoked his political asylum. The U.S. unsealed an extradition request outlining Espionage Act charges, and U.K. authorities moved him to London's Belmarsh Prison in April 2019, a maximum security facility where inmates are held in small single cells. Amnesty International has drawn parallels between Belmarsh and Guantanamo Bay. Reports and statements from doctors emerged quickly after his imprisonment testifying to his deteriorating mental and physical health. 

Stella Assange—an attorney specializing in international law, a human rights activist, and the wife of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, with whom she has two children—joined Reason's Zach Weissmueller and Liz Wolfe on episode three of Just Asking Questions to talk about the toll that imprisonment has taken on Assange and his family. They also discuss the threat to freedom of speech that the United States' Espionage Act case against Assange poses, why she believes that the Swedish sex charges against him were bogus, and why many in the U.S. media seem hostile to Assange and WikiLeaks. 

Watch the full conversation on Reason's YouTube channel or on the Just Asking Questions podcast feed on Apple, Spotify, or your preferred podcatcher. 

Watch the full video here and find a condensed transcript below. 

Zach Weissmueller: Julian Assange was arrested outside England's Ecuadorian embassy after his political asylum was revoked and moved to Belmarsh Prison in April 2019. That's a maximum security facility where inmates are held in small single cells. Amnesty International has drawn parallels to Guantanamo Bay. Reports and statements from doctors emerged quickly after that imprisonment, testifying to his deteriorating mental and physical health. How is he doing today?

Stella Assange: Well, as we film this, we're nearing his fifth Christmas in Belmarsh Prison, and he has been there for over four and a half years now because the U.S. has been trying to extradite him since April 11, 2019, and he hasn't left the facility to go to court since January 2021. That was the last time they allowed him to come to court for his own hearings. Since then, he's been participating remotely over video because they don't let him even go to the courtroom. 

His physical state has obviously deteriorated over that time. He spends a lot of time in his cell, but he is able to receive visits. So once or twice a week I can go and see him on weekends. I can bring the kids and that obviously helps him a lot. He can call me from Belmarsh Prison during certain hours throughout the day. So we are in contact during the day for most days, unless there is some kind of problem. And that obviously keeps him sane and helps us both feel like we're not so separated. 

Weissmueller: You're a mother, and you have kids together, how often are you able to travel to see him? And what is the personal situation like for you?

Assange: Well, it's obviously very difficult. Our children, the oldest one is 6 and a half, and the youngest one will turn 5 in February. All of their memories of Julian are inside this one big visiting hall inside Belmarsh Prison. And I reiterate that Julian is only there because there is this extradition request from the United States. He's not charged with any crime in the United Kingdom. They're just holding him on behalf of the United States which is opposing bail. And so we're forced to interact within this extremely harsh environment. And that's all the children know, visiting their father inside a big, loud, monitored visiting home once a week, more or less. 

Liz Wolfe: How do you explain that to your children? How much do they know about their father's situation?

Assange: It's really a mix of the two. So I've tried to introduce context as they grow older. I didn't want them to understand what a prison was before for other concepts like freedom and fairness. Actually, it was our eldest son, Gabriel, at one point, I guess he was around 5, when he asked if Julian was in prison. This place that we went to, was it a prison? And I told him yes. Before that I would say, we're going to the big building where Daddy is, and it's not Daddy's home. He's just being kept there. And obviously, they experience the whole process of going through the prison security, which everyone has to go through. Everyone, including toddlers, has to be searched by the dogs. They look inside their mouths and so on. They get patted down. They've seen that, and they live it. 

I explained that, yes, it's a prison, but that daddy hasn't done anything wrong. In fact, he's done good things, and he's being punished by bad people. I'm trying to explain it in age-appropriate ways and also trying to counter the immediate horror of the situation with the fact that lots of people support Julian and are fighting for his freedom. And sometimes I've taken them to protests and so on so that they actually see that there are a lot of people that support Julian and that there's something bigger going on. He's not just any other prisoner. And that's obvious from when you visit Belmarsh. There are huge banners saying "Free Julian Assange." At least once a week there's a protest. People go into the prison premises with loudspeakers and call for him to be released. 

This is a unique case, and I think they can sense that there's something special about their dad. And I've told them it's not the guards themselves, who they see and interact with, who are holding their father specifically. It's the people above them, the people who decide. And they're the people that Julian made angry because he showed the world that they had done bad things. And they're angry about that. 

That's generally how I try to explain it. And they understand. I tell them that Daddy's a hero. Millions of people around the world admire him. He spoke the truth. And sometimes it's difficult to tell the truth. And a lot of people will get angry and try to take revenge. 

Wolfe: You first met Julian, if I'm not mistaken, when he was fighting sexual assault charges in Sweden. And you initially joined his defense team. What made you interested in that case? And what's your perspective on that whole case?

Assange: I joined his legal team in February 2011, and Julian had started publishing the WikiLeaks publications that had been sent to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning in 2010, so a year before I joined his team. These publications from Chelsea Manning were the "collateral murder" video, the Iraq War logs, Afghanistan war diaries, diplomatic cables, and the Guantanamo Bay files. 

These are the same publications that Julian is indicted with now that had happened in the lead-up to me joining his legal team. And it had also started prior to any preliminary investigation being opened in Sweden. And actually, there were never any charges in Sweden. None were brought. And that's quite amazing because it kind of defies logic, right? Because there was a big extradition case, and Sweden would say, "Well, we haven't decided whether to actually bring charges against him, but we just want to question him." And then there was this question about, well, "Why don't you just question him?" 

Anyway, that Swedish preliminary investigation was dropped and resurrected multiple times. It was dropped four times, resurrected three. No charges were ever brought. It's quite extraordinary. The amazing thing about this case is that the prosecutor was refusing to question him. How can it possibly be that in a sex case where, of course, memories fade and it all depends on the recollections of the people involved, the prosecutor had to be compelled by the Swedish Court of Appeal, six years after the fact, to question him? The reason the Court of Appeal compelled her was that they said she had failed her professional duty to advance the case. And, of course, this is just one aspect of how that Swedish preliminary investigation was abusive. The reason it was abusive was because it took place in a highly charged political moment in which Julian was being actively sought by authorities because he was about to publish the Chelsea Manning leaks. 

He had already published the "collateral murder" video and the Afghan [Diaries]. And it was one month before WikiLeaks started publishing the Iraq War logs that he went to Sweden. There's actually a Daily Beast article that's archived in which the U.S. reporter says the State Department was contacting its allies in Europe and urging them to find a way to stop Julian in his tracks, to arrest him on whatever because by then they had arrested Chelsea Manning, then Bradley Manning, and they knew that WikiLeaks had more major leaks coming out. And so they wanted to stop him in his tracks. They contacted the Australians. The Australians were looking to cancel his passport. And then there was an investigation by the Australian police, and then the Australian police recommending not canceling his passport thinking it would be easier to track his movements. And ultimately Sweden initiated this preliminary investigation, which was condemned by the United Nations as an abuse against Julian's rights as a defendant. 

He was, in fact, never formally a defendant because he was never charged, which meant that he was never given access to exculpatory evidence of text messages that we knew existed. And so the U.N. special rapporteur on torture also did an investigation and in 2019 wrote to the Swedish and U.K. governments who refused to cooperate. He wrote a whole book about it. It's called The Trial of Julian Assange. And for any viewers who are interested in this kind of Swedish preliminary investigation, which also served to cast a shadow on Julian to treat him as an accused person without being formally accused, there's another book called Secret Power: WikiLeaks and Its Enemies by Stefania Maurizi who is an Italian investigative journalist. Stefania Maurizi has done a lot of [Freedom of Information Act] work and obtained a bunch of correspondence, some of which had been destroyed by one party, which is the U.K. government, which is incredibly damning. And it shows how, in fact, there was a collusion between the U.K. and Sweden. The U.K. was telling Sweden not to question him, to extradite him, and that Sweden was going to put him in custody immediately and urging them not to progress the investigation unless he was extradited. This is extremely bizarre. Of course, denying a suspect the ability to defend himself is unjust. If you think this is just a regular case, then none of it makes sense. But once you understand the political context, then, of course, it all makes sense. 

It even says in this correspondence that Stefania Maurizi discovered literally the sentence, "Please do not think that we are treating this as just any other extradition case." That's the words of the U.K. prosecution authority who was communicating with the Swedish authorities. And then when Sweden tried to drop it in 2013, the U.K. responded by saying, "Don't you dare get cold feet telling them not to drop it." So it's pretty clear. But of course, as soon as that was dropped, it was revealed that there was an indictment that had come under the Trump administration, and Julian has been in Belmarsh in relation to that extradition request from the U.S. since 2019.

Wolfe: These are not the traditional circumstances under which most people meet their spouses. What was this like for you emotionally? How did you feel signing up to work on this case and then getting to know Julian, like what was swirling around in your head?

Assange: Well, I was steeped in the documents surrounding this Swedish preliminary investigation, and there was no case to answer. From the beginning, it was pretty clear that the administrative use of the extradition request from Sweden was a way to trap him, basically to bury him in a legal quagmire in order to interfere with his publishing work. In Sweden, as I said, like the initial prosecutor who looked at the case said there, there is no crime of rape involved in these allegations. The Swedish conduct in this case also responds to local dynamics. The person who took on the case within days was also running for general elections in Sweden. He was tipped to become the new justice minister. Julian's case was in the media. There were a lot of motivations. It wasn't just the likely nudge from the State Department at the highest levels. 

Julian's name was leaked to the press, which should never happen in the case of a preliminary investigation where the person hasn't even been formally accused. And as I said, he was never formally accused in those nine years. The U.N.'s working group on arbitrary detention, which looked at this case from 2014 onwards, saw the underlying investigation material. It was an adversarial process in which Sweden and the U.K. were unsuccessful in convincing this group of U.N. experts on arbitrary detention that they had conducted themselves in a lawful manner. They had, in fact, violated international obligations concerning arbitrary detention when it came to Julian, because, as I said, he was neither convicted nor even charged in relation to Sweden. And so it was this extraordinarily abusive nature of the Swedish allegations that was immediately obvious to me, as a member of his legal team. And so I could directly access the material of the case that we had access to to see that this was absurd. 

And my own experience, I mean, as I got to know Julian, was to see how he was persecuted and maligned in all sorts of ways. Of course, the Swedish aspect was just one. It was an effective one because Julian had a lot of support from the left initially because these publications concerned, of course, the Bush wars and so on. And a sex case, even one without a formal accusation or a conviction or anything, obviously is going to alienate a portion of the left and a big portion of women. And there was a deliberate strategy as these FOIA documents show, to keep him in this position of not being able to defend himself, with not being able to clear his name because they refused to question him. Sweden refused to give him a guarantee that he wouldn't be extradited to the United States. Sweden, in spite of its reputation, was a participant in the CIA rendition program, it branded al-Zari and Agiza, two asylum seekers who were in the process of applying for protection, and instead they were taken on a CIA flight and tortured in Egypt. And this was one of the most obvious and one of the most shocking cases of CIA rendition.

Since 2001, Sweden, I don't know if it's still true, but while Julian was still facing potential extradition, Sweden has not once rejected an extradition request to the United States. And this is different to the U.K., which has rejected extradition requests to the United States. So this was also a factor in Julian's decision to resist extradition to Sweden, which is a very small country and views itself as a very small country, certainly in relation to the U.S. 

Weissmueller: There are people who were or are friendly to the WikiLeaks mission who say that Julian Assange is a problematic figure. It's a theme that you see in multiple documentaries produced about him, including Risk by Laura Poitras, who's sympathetic but takes this position that Julian's personal troubles are intertwined too much with WikiLeaks' mission. What do you make of that kind of criticism?

Assange: It's really a dated criticism because that kind of criticism came about when the extradition case in relation to Sweden was alive. So a lot of people at the time were saying, "Well, he has nothing to worry about. The U.S. doesn't want to extradite him. This is all about Sweden, etc." And unfortunately, Risk fell into that trap. It's very dated now when you watch it, because obviously what happened was that Julian was indicted in relation to the Afghan and Iraq war publications and so on. 

Look, a lot of these portrayals came about in the immediate aftermath of these publications. So what happened in 2010 and 2011 was that WikiLeaks came onto the scene and broke more significant stories than the legacy press had in 50 years combined. And of course, WikiLeaks had partnered with The New York Times, The Guardian, and three major European papers as well in Germany, Spain, and France to maximize the coverage of these big databases. And so they would publish the cables, the war logs, and so on, in coordination, doing joint investigations and so on with these big papers. Once the big papers had published together with WikiLeaks, then there wasn't much utility in that partnership, and they just distanced themselves. Julian was also a critic of the way that these major papers reported on the WikiLeaks publications, the way they redacted information that exposed them to lawsuits from oligarchs. WikiLeaks had already published on their website, so there was, from that perspective, no serious legal threat. 

So Julian has been critical of the major media players. And of course, he was an outsider. He's Australian. This is an internet publisher, an internet publisher that attracted very high-quality sources who entrusted WikiLeaks as the vehicle with which this information could reach the public. And the reason for that was that WikiLeaks has a very high-grade submission system which has since been copied by the mainstream. There's a very interesting paper by Jack Goldsmith, who was the former assistant attorney general under a Republican administration, I can't remember which, called the "WikiLeaks-ization of the American Media." And what he argues is that the American press adopted the innovations that WikiLeaks had pioneered by the mid-2010s. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, etc. all have the same or similar technology. They adopted the technology that WikiLeaks invented for using encryption to be able to protect sources when they communicate, and also the submission systems so that you don't necessarily, as the receiver of information, know who the source is. And so this became adopted by the mainstream press. 

Another innovation that WikiLeaks brought was to create partnerships between media organizations. It was WikiLeaks who basically forced The New York Times to cooperate with The Guardian, to cooperate with Le Monde and El País, and so on. It had never been done before. It wasn't easy. And part of the reason why there was a distancing from Julian Assange was because they didn't like to work in a way that was not on their own terms, even when it was with other major media partners. And so when Julian came onto the scene, he was seen as a competitor, but also as a threat to the mainstream media's economic model. 

This is like 2010. The major papers were publishing online, and their advertising revenue was down. People weren't buying papers anymore. Lots of people are being fired and so on. And here comes WikiLeaks. That has a completely different business model, which is it's small, has a lot of volunteers, and it's reader-funded. And of course, now we see reader-funded publications quite a lot. But at the time, apart from some bloggers perhaps, this was a real reader-funded publication that was unfettered by advertising restrictions. And that at the same time was having such high-quality sources come to them and having high impact and enabling it to enter into partnerships with the biggest media organizations, the biggest media houses, and basically being able to call the shots because WikiLeaks was the one that attracted the sources. And of course, once the legal trouble started and the financial blockade, Bank of America, PayPal, Western Union, and so on blocked the donations to WikiLeaks as soon as WikiLeaks had started to publish the State Department cables. This was also the time when Julian was arrested over the Swedish allegations. This all happened within a week, so it all came down at the same time. And then these major media organizations who had partnered with WikiLeaks then turned against Julian. And basically, I think the objective was to try to kill off WikiLeaks because it was a competitor, because it had such an important impact and was a newcomer. And a threat to the gatekeeper function that we all know.

Wolfe: There is this line drawn between these people who are journalists over here, but these other people surely don't qualify. And therefore, their First Amendment protections ought to be different. How do you feel when you see MSNBC hosts treating Julian Assange in this way? 

Assange: It's a bit disappointing because the criticisms that they use are just simply not true. You had Maria Ressa there. She was a CNN presenter. And then, of course, she's a Nobel Peace Prize winner and has herself faced political prosecution because of her journalism. And it's really disappointing that she says something like WikiLeaks dumping. This is one of the major distortions concerning WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks does privilege the publication of archives, but it doesn't just dump it. It provides context. It writes up context. It writes up analysis. It has redacted information and states the criteria for redactions and so on. 

But even so, I mean, all of this is really irrelevant whether Julian's a journalist or not. The question is, is Julian accused of journalism? And he is. It is the activity that has been criminalized. Not whether he falls into a category or not. It's the category of the activity that is being criminalized. Receiving, obtaining, and communicating information to the public. 

The use of the Espionage Act, it's very interesting because you see kind of lazy journalists, lazy reporters, talking about Julian as if he is being accused of being a spy. You enter into the realm of absurdity when you start talking about the allegations against Julian, because the first point is that Julian is Australian. He's not American. He's never lived there. And the use of the Espionage Act allows for this categorical laziness. And that's because the Espionage Act is a very broadly worded, indeterminate piece of text that was adopted in 1917, and that has been interpreted in an increasingly expansive way, and especially under the Obama administration. The Obama administration really ramped up the use of the Espionage Act against journalistic sources. Under the Obama administration, three times more people were prosecuted as sources of news stories than all previous administrations in the 100 years preceding it combined. And so this expansive crime that started under the Obama administration then continued and became even more extreme under the Trump administration. 

So it actually took the U.S. eight years to bring an indictment against Julian, and it came under the Trump administration. I just found this quote that was really interesting. There was a case called the Morrison case in 1984, and this was a source who was indicted and convicted under the Espionage Act for disclosing classified photos to a British military journal. That was Judge Harvie Wilkinson, who in his concurring opinion, said that this would be limited to the role of the source because press organizations are not being and probably could not be prosecuted under the Espionage Act because of the political firestorm that would follow. So, in other words, he was saying that what limits the Espionage Act is political safeguards. It is the outcry. It is the reaction to the preposterous use of the Espionage Act against the press. And so what has happened is that the Espionage Act has been used in that way. It's been used against Julian. It's precedent setting. And the supposed outcry that was supposed to limit this kind of use of the Espionage Act has not followed.

Weissmueller: A lot unfolded in 2016 between WikiLeaks and the U.S. government during the election. How do you think that changed the tenor of the conversation and the way that people view WikiLeaks? And what do you say to people who think that there's some weird relationship between Julian Assange and Russia? 

Assange: I don't think there are any Russians who have worked for WikiLeaks. Well, Julian had a talk show that was licensed to a number of channels and Russia Today at the time, this was 2011. This is a long time ago. These allegations have never been substantiated because there is nothing to substantiate. The Mueller report, of course, came up with nothing. The national security directors in January 2017, already during a congressional hearing, said that in relation to the 2016 election material, they had no evidence of anything untoward concerning WikiLeaks. It's all been speculation. It's all basically coming down to Julian licensing a show to Russia Today in 2011. It's weak, to say the least. 

Of course, in relation to the 2016 publications, there was a strategy by the Hillary Clinton campaign to talk about Russia as allegedly interfering with that election and so on. But when you look at the WikiLeaks publication specifically, they had nothing to do with this other stuff, the D.C. leaks and I don't know what, which others did publish. WikiLeaks published the [Democratic National Committee] leaks and the [John] Podesta emails. And earlier in the year they had also republished the Hillary Clinton emails that had been put up on the State Department website, which were not easily accessible. 

So there were actually three Clinton publications. So the DNC ones revealed how the Hillary Clinton campaign had rigged the Democratic primaries and basically defrauded the Democratic donors who were being misled. The Bernie ones who were being misled because the candidate that they were supporting actually had no chance of becoming a nominee. The Hillary Clinton campaign, of course, afterward, when [it was] found out in Donna Brazile's book there was a secret agreement between the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign, and there was even a written agreement. They were colluding to basically undermine and ensure that Bernie Sanders did not get equal access to the media and so on. 

And then the Podesta emails, which came in October, showed how the Hillary Clinton campaign had also basically rigged the Republican primaries in the sense that they had this thing called the "pied piper" strategy. They would get their mates at MSNBC and so on to get Trump on the airwaves, because according to the Hillary campaign, their view was that Trump and a couple of other Republican candidates were extreme and unelectable and would alienate the swing voters and so on. And if they gave Trump airtime and if they convinced their allies in the press to give Trump airtime, then Hillary would win. And of course, we know what happened after that. So these were, you know, incredibly important publications. 

In fact, there was a court case that many people haven't even heard about. The DNC tried to sue WikiLeaks and Julian personally in the Southern District of New York in relation to the DNC publications. And that case was thrown out by the judge on First Amendment grounds. And in fact, he said that this was the type of publication that enjoys the highest protection of the First Amendment because you cannot think of a more important publication than that concerning political candidates in the lead-up to an election. That's a really important and strong judgment. The New York Times afterward gave an interview to the BBC saying, well, if they had received it, they would have also published it. 

I think it raises important questions about whether it's really possible in the U.S. media landscape to be truly independent. Can you alienate Democrats and Republicans and still enjoy protection even under the law? Like the political heat on you, and on WikiLeaks, having published damning information both about Republicans and post-2016 about Democrats, has placed Julian in an extremely vulnerable position. Vulnerable in the sense that if the First Amendment protections are not robust enough, if the political climate is such where there is a push for censorship, a push for propaganda, for repression when it comes to speech, then this political restraint on the Espionage Act becomes ineffective.

Wolfe: I want to take us back in time to 2010 for a second, which was when WikiLeaks made its first big release with the "collateral murder" video. It really exposed some of the horrors of war to an American audience for the first time. What was the impact of that video? And what is the broader impact of the WikiLeaks releases on the world?

Assange: Well, it really marks a before-and-after concerning the Bush wars. It's 2010, right? This actual event depicted in the video is from July 2007. The war had started in 2003, and it had been going for seven years by the time "collateral murder" was released. And by then there wasn't much interest in the media anymore. There were embedded journalists traveling with U.S. convoys and going to press briefings by the Pentagon and so on. But there was no real insight. There were just body bags coming back from Iraq. There was real newsworthiness, let's say, in reporting about Iraq. And then suddenly this came down, and it had such an impact because it really contrasted with the curated information that was coming through the media. And it depicts a war crime. That's what you see. It's not just the gunning down of these individuals, to begin with, where two Reuters journalists are on assignment and get killed. One of them crawls to cover and then a van pulls up, and two good samaritans come out of the van and try to pick up this journalist and then bring him into the van. And then it gets shot down and everyone dies, except for two children who are shielded by the body of their father. So this is a truly horrific video. And it's horrific not just because you're watching it, but because you're listening to the conversation and the kind of jokey, casual conversation around war. 

I think Chelsea Manning has said that in just 30 minutes you see the Iraq War in its essence. And it really captured the international imagination. And in December 2011, the Obama administration had the U.S. military removed officially, at least from Iraq, in big part because of what WikiLeaks had published. 

WikiLeaks had a major impact on the way U.S. policy developed after that point of the publication of the "collateral murder" video. Also with the Afghan War, it took another 10 years or nine years for that to finish. And we all know how that ended. But it didn't just show the carnage in Iraq but the senselessness of sending soldiers to fight this war in Iraq and die and get injured. And of course, the epidemic of suicides that has followed and is ongoing.

Weissmueller: For me, Julian Assange is a figure of world-historical importance because of what he unlocked with WikiLeaks. He demonstrated undeniably that the strategic use of technology like encryption would be shifting the entire global power structure. And he ushered in that new reality. He showed a whole generation that maybe resistance to these powerful super-states actually isn't futile. And if you have the right tools and you know how to use them, you can really change the world. And I think that might be a big part of why he's a marked man. But is there anything else that you want to say as we're wrapping up about his significance or his place in history?

Assange: Well, I think Julian is a visionary and a pioneer, as you say. Many of his writings and his speeches have gone viral on the Internet. In relation to Ukraine, for example, he was talking about Afghanistan, but his kind of big-picture analysis and criticism of the drivers of war have currency now. And in fact, you know, I often go back to the things that he wrote 10 years ago because they have stood the test of time. He is a global figure and a thinker of our times and the type that is direly needed. Julian has to be freed not just because this is an enormous injustice and the precedent it sets affects journalists everywhere in the U.S., but also globally. It's an extreme overreach. It criminalizes the publication of true information of the highest public importance, but also because of Julian's position as a public intellectual and as someone who promotes truth and is a critic of war. 

There's a House resolution that is being pushed but has been tabled. It expresses that regular journalistic activities are protected under the First Amendment and that the U.S. ought to drop all charges and attempts to extradite Julian Assange.

The First Amendment is something that is quite unique in the world, and it defines the political culture of the United States, which is much more open and dynamic than other parts of the world. The vast majority of politicians who look at this case seriously will understand the dangers of this case, that it should never have come to pass, that the case should be dropped. I'd ask any viewers to contact their representatives and ask them to support any efforts to drop the case against Julian. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.