Assange Lawyer Hid Rushdie, Defended Lawmaker Who Faked Death

Human-Rights Lawyer Geoffrey Robertson
Human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. Photographer: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Geoffrey Robertson, the U.K. lawyer seeking to halt WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to Sweden, has grown accustomed to high-profile cases since representing a politician who faked his own death in the 1970s.

The human-rights lawyer, who like Assange was born in Australia, said the interest in his client’s case reminds him of the late U.K. Postmaster General and Labour member of Parliament John Stonehouse, who staged his suicide on a Miami beach in 1974, leaving his wife to collect the insurance.

After fleeing to Australia with his mistress, the lawmaker was extradited to Britain, where he went on trial and spent four years in prison. Thirty-seven years later, Robertson seeks a different outcome for Assange, who is wanted in Sweden to face allegations of sexual misconduct.

“The extradition process is one that often doesn’t look at the merits of the case,” Robertson, 64, said in an interview at his home in the London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. “It looks at technicalities and legalities -- the big issues will be there in the background.”

The extradition isn’t related to WikiLeaks, the website that drew condemnation for posting thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic communications and military documents, including a video of a July 2007 helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a Reuters television cameraman and his driver.

A case management hearing in the Assange proceedings is scheduled for tomorrow at a criminal court in London. The substantive arguments on the extradition will be heard next month.

Robertson is no stranger to high-profile cases involving foreign governments. In 1989, he defended Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British author whose novel “The Satanic Verses” prompted Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa condemning him to death.

‘Arcane’ Blasphemy Law

Rushdie hired Robertson to defend him after Muslim groups sued the writer in London over claims that his book blasphemed the prophet Muhammad. The case took advantage of Britain’s “arcane” blasphemy law at the time, Robertson said.

Robertson hid Rushdie in his home. London police feared the lawyer was a potential target during the case and told him how to look for bombs under his car, Robertson said. The men weren’t attacked and Robertson prevailed in court, blocking the case from going to trial.

Assange turned himself in to London police on Dec. 7 after Swedish authorities issued a warrant on unlawful coercion, molestation and rape allegations. After a week behind bars, Robertson’s arguments helped persuade a judge to release Assange on 200,000 pounds bail ($310,000) and other restrictions including wearing an electronic monitor.

Swedish ‘Vendetta’

Assange’s other lawyer, Mark Stephens, has said the Swedish case may be politically motivated due to the WikiLeaks disclosures, and argued the attempt to withhold bail was proof of Sweden’s “vendetta” against his client. Robertson and Stephens have said Assange tried to work with Swedish authorities while he was in the country.

Robertson “acts for the underdog,” said Andrew Buchan, a lawyer at Cloisters in London who worked with Robertson on a U.S. serviceman’s negligence lawsuit against the U.S. military. He described Robertson as “one of the leaders of his generation in human-rights law.”

“He’s an ideal advocate for Julian Assange,” Buchan said in a telephone interview. “He’s a believer in freedom-of-speech. He understands the issues and he’s able to put them forward in a dispassionate way.”

Robertson declined to comment about his arguments in the case.

‘Doesn’t Need Lawyers’

“Assange is very able and willing to speak for himself and doesn’t need lawyers other than to stop him going on every program that offers itself,” Robertson said of Assange’s frequent media interviews. “It will be my task to prepare and present the arguments for not extraditing him to Sweden -- and maybe not to the United States.”

The U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last year that the Justice Department is investigating the WikiLeaks disclosures.

Stephens, at Finers Stephens Innocent LLP in London, is a solicitor who prepares court documents and represents Assange in public. Robertson, a barrister, makes arguments in court.

“They tend to give us the cases that don’t have the obvious answers,” said Stephens, who regularly represents media organizations, including Bloomberg News.

The pair’s past cases include representing families of British soldiers killed by U.S. “friendly fire” during the first Gulf War in 1991, said Stephens.

‘Fundamental Issue’

Robertson excels “where there’s a really fundamental issue that needs to be set straight,” Stephens said. “He has this innate sense of justice and knowing what is right, and he’s able to deploy that to measure any case he comes across.”

The lawyers met in 1979, when they successfully represented Bob Monkhouse, a British comedian and game-show host who was charged with defrauding film distributors in relation to a film and television archive.

While working to keep Assange out of Sweden, Robertson is also representing a businessman in an international human-rights case. Rony Fuchs, an Israeli investor who accused Georgia of wrongfully expropriating a pipeline project and won a $98 million World Bank judgment in March, was thrown in prison when he flew to the former Soviet state to collect the money, Robertson said.

“They entrapped him -- they claimed he was corrupt,” Robertson said. The European Court of Human Rights will likely hear the case, he said. “It’s interesting that human-rights law should now come to the assistance of businesspeople.”

Oz Magazine

Robertson, who is married to Australian author Kathy Lette, gained notoriety in the U.K. in the 1970s as a junior lawyer defending editors accused of criminal obscenity for their work on the “hippie” magazine Oz. The men, whose long hair was forcibly shaved for trial, won on appeal after earlier being sentenced to prison. Robertson worked on a similar freedom-of-speech case defending London-based Gay News after it was put on trial for obscenity for publishing a poem about Christ being gay.

‘Freakish Advocate’

Robertson is a so-called Queen’s Counsel-ranked lawyer who can argue cases in most of the 53 British Commonwealth countries. He describes himself as a “freakish advocate” due to the breadth of cases he handles across the globe, including Malaysia, Hong Kong and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

“I did the case in Fiji that threw out the military government, restored democracy and decided that if you have democracy you can’t lose it,” Robertson said. “That was a very important case a couple of years ago.”

Robertson, who founded his human-rights law firm Doughty Street Chambers in 1990, said his sense of justice stems from the mistreatment of minorities in his home country while he was student body president at the University of Sydney.

“I was brought up in Australia, where aborigines, for example, weren’t even counted in the census,” Robertson said. “My life has seen a lot of occasions where human-rights cases have led to greater happiness or certainly less suffering.”

The case is: Government of Sweden v. Julian Assange.

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