Attorney Jennifer Robinson is seated in a hotel lounge during the UN General Assembly when two teens beside her start up a conversation. Caleb and Jordan are advocates for disability design, and Jordan has just spoken on a panel. When she shyly confesses to harboring some acting aspirations, Robinson instantly lights up. “My client is an actress!” she says, offering to introduce her to a woman she knows who could provide some guidance. Would they like to meet Amber Heard? If the kids are surprised at the Rolodex of the stranger beside them, they don’t show it. Had dreams of fame not come up, they’d have no way of knowing that the generous Australian blonde eagerly peppering them with questions about their lives is a high-powered human rights attorney working on one of the most notable cases of our age.
Robinson, 38, whose warm manner and tendency to laugh easily belie the fierceness that surfaces over the course of a long conversation, is notable in the UK as the lawyer for Julian Assange—she has appeared across the globe in numerous courthouse photos, striding beside the now world-famous founder of WikiLeaks. As Assange’s longest-serving attorney, she has spent close to a decade working to defend him from charges of conspiracy and keep him out of prison, achieving a bizarre slice of celebrity along the way. (Speaking of bizarre celebrity, Kellyanne Conway passes by three times, effectively echoing the threat of government surveillance.)
But Robinson isn’t at the General Assembly on WikiLeaks business. As she reminds the many who only want to hear about Assange, she has a lot of other clients. She’s working with Cherie Blair, the wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair and a queen’s counsel, to defend Marsha Lazareva, a prominent businesswoman and American green-card holder who has been held in Kuwait on what her attorneys say are false charges of money laundering and embezzlement; Robinson has been involved with several presentations during the week to drum up support for the case. She’s meeting with Heard, whom she’s advising on a defamation suit from her ex-husband Johnny Depp, while Heard is in town speaking at a town hall on sexual abuse. Perhaps most important of all, Robinson is presenting on the case for the liberation of West Papua, a former Dutch colony that has been occupied by Indonesia for decades, the cause that has motivated her work in human rights law since she was a university student.
A native of Berry, a country town in New South Wales, Robinson found herself fascinated by justice at a young age. “I think, like lots of people who go to law school, I wanted to help people less fortunate than I am,” she says. “Originally, I actually wanted to become a diplomat, because I had a very naïve view of Australia’s foreign policy.” At 16, she witnessed Australia leading the UN peacekeeping force to help East Timor peacefully transition into self-governance after years spent under Indonesian rule and was transfixed. Growing up the oldest of four kids (she’s now the oldest of six, with the addition of siblings who are seven and nine years old), Robinson was raised in a tight-knit family. Her father was a famed racehorse trainer, her mother a teacher, and the law seemed an unlikely career. “I grew up riding ponies, in a really wonderful, grounded place,” she says. Her father was the oldest of 12 children, and she was one of 40 first cousins. “I feel really fortunate, actually, in having had that very sheltered, loving, safe [life], which in and of itself is a privilege.”
Robinson left home to attend Australian National University, where she focused on both Asian studies and law and became fluent in Indonesian. Still struck by the memory of East Timor, she chose to spend a year studying abroad at Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University. Six months in, she pursued a research project in West Papua, a province that was colonized by Indonesia over 50 years ago. West Papuans have spent decades embroiled in a bloody struggle for their independence, a fight that spiked this fall, causing dozens of deaths. “What surprised me about it was just how much discrimination there was against indigenous West Papuans,” she says of her time there. “How much violence there was. How overrun the place was with Indonesian military. How isolated they were from the international community and from each other and their own history.”
While in West Papua, she worked on legal cases for Elsham, an NGO that advocates for humanitarian rights. The organization was handling an investigation into the killing of two Americans and one Indonesian near Freeport-McMoRan’s world-famous gold and copper mine. The official line at the time was that the men were killed by a member of the liberation movement, but Robinson’s office had reason to believe that the killer had been paid by the government’s militia. Robinson’s efforts to facilitate an interview between a witness and the Washington Post were met with a visit from a U.S. diplomat, who warned Elsham to halt its investigation of the incident. “That was when I was like, ‘I will never be a diplomat. I will never allow that. I will never play that role for my government,’ ” she says.
Robinson also became deeply involved in the case of Benny Wenda, a liberation leader who was charged with inciting violence and arson. She attended his trial daily, and when her university forced her to cut her term short after the 2002 bombing in Bali, she was devastated. (Soon after, she also learned that Wenda had escaped from his cell and made his way to England in pursuit of asylum, eventually settling in Oxford.) She had little desire to return to Australia, and she now believes she was suffering from PTSD. “It was hard to process the things I’d seen—evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity. I’d dealt with victims of rape and torture, and going back to Australia…going back into that normal university life, with people worried about what they’re going to wear to the pub on Friday night, was just a bit too confronting,” she says. Robinson took a year off from school to travel, and she returned to campus with a new mind-set: The sports and partying she had enjoyed so much during her first years of school were over. She acquired a new level of concentration and focus, and it propelled her to earn a Rhodes scholarship that sent her to Oxford.
While living in the same city, Robinson virtually became a member of Wenda’s family, helping to care for his children and generally supporting him and his wife while continuing to work with him to make the case for West Papuan independence. In 2013, she spoke about his leadership in the struggle for a TED Talk, and she continues to assist his efforts to build a West Papuan parliamentary group, with the hope that international support will help turn the tide.
“There’s no word to describe how she’s a marvelous woman. Trying to find [another] like her on this planet—no, I don’t think so,” Wenda says. It’s tough for lawyers in West Papua to do advocacy work while they’re living under the regime, so Robinson is able to offer a valuable resource. “There are many lawyers [in West Papua], but they feel Indonesia [is too] powerful,” he says. “But she constantly stands up for rights for the people; she’s a really courageous woman.”
After finishing her coursework at Oxford, where she’d studied law (focusing on international law and human rights), Robinson moved to London. She began working at a small boutique firm for clients that included the New York Times, whom she advised on their coverage of the UK phone hacking scandal. In 2009, she received a call from her Oxford mentor Geoffrey Robertson, a queen’s counsel (and a fellow Australian) who is the founder and joint head of the London chambers she now works in, asking her if she might be interested in working on an argument to suggest that child sex abuse in the Catholic Church was a crime against humanity. Robinson accepted immediately and began researching and formulating the argument for what would eventually become Robertson’s book The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse.
Throughout the process, her religious upbringing loomed large, but Robinson hadn’t been observant in years—like so many young Catholics, she was haunted by the enormity of the abuse within the church. When she was a teenager, Father Maurie Crocker, a beloved community priest who’d married and baptized many of her family members, died by suicide in 1998 for reasons she’d never understood. As she studied records for the case, she discovered that several children had confided to him that they were being abused. “He took it to the church, and the church did nothing. So he took it to the police, and the police did nothing,” Robinson recalls. “Dismayed by the lack of action, he went to the local media. But because of what he did, he was shunned by the church and ended up committing suicide. I hadn’t really understood the whole backstory to what had happened to him until I came to it through my own work.”
That noble act elevated whistle-blowers in Robinson’s mind. Powerful interests can take many forms (dioceses, governments, wealthy corporations), as can those in need of defense, and Robinson sees a common thread between her own clients’ advocacy, even if the link between Father Crocker and Julian Assange isn’t one that others might appreciate. “It started me thinking about the importance of whistle-blowing,” she says. “Being in West Papua started me thinking about how when you’re cut off from the media, you’re not getting coverage or alternative sources of information. You can kind of see why all these things fit together.”
Just over a year ago, Robinson began advising Heard, who is being sued for defamation by Depp over a 2018 Washington Post op-ed she wrote on violence against women. Heard alleged physical abuse by her ex-husband during their divorce proceedings, which were finalized in 2017. “I see her case as indicative of the types of litigation we’re seeing globally against women who are speaking out about their experience,” she says, referencing the NDAs and breach-of-confidence lawsuits that can be used against women claiming misconduct. “You see women being threatened with bankruptcy and the stress of dealing with litigation, which is really difficult.” Robinson values the opportunity to take on powerful interests, and she knows that while Heard is wealthy and high-profile, her power pales in comparison to Depp’s.
“It took me about four seconds total to realize that I was dealing with the smartest person in the room,” Heard says. “She is as strong as she is sensitive to the issues, to understanding the nuanced nature of adversity and pain, of disadvantage—she understands that without being weakened by it. What that says about her emotional and psychological intelligence is everything to me. Jen is the most important, treasured asset in my life as a human being, as a sister.”
Robinson maintains a close-knit group of friends who, as she puts it, workshop each other’s careers and love lives. Many of the relationships were forged at Oxford; others came at different points along the way. Ambition runs strong through the group: Katharine Wilkinson is an expert on climate change and the lead writer of Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, while Amal Clooney, her coworker at Doughty Street Chambers, has also worked on Assange’s case. “I have no time for women who are not women’s women,” Robinson says.
“Jen is one of those people who you know is going to be a star in whatever she does,” says Wilkinson, noting how rapidly her friend’s life changed when she took on the Assange case. “Now I think there’s a lot that comes with that, the good and the bad.… Pretty quickly she got catapulted into the limelight, with lots of praise and lots of criticism hurled at her. As a friend, I feel very protective, and want her to be able to catch her breath and have some space, but there is so much urgent work to be done in the world. And if there is important work to be done, she’s going to do it.
Robinson will become even more high-profile in February, when Assange is scheduled to appear for the extradition hearing that represents the latest and most serious hurdle in his case. While Robinson does not practice in the United States, she is part of the legal team advising on the defense against the charges. Assange has been in London’s maximum security Belmarsh prison since April, when he was arrested for jumping bail after he was expelled from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he had been holed up since 2012 in order to avoid being extradited to the U.S. He was also facing a sexual assault charge in Sweden. In May, U.S. prosecutors charged him with an additional 17 crimes, including some that fall under the Espionage Act. The charges spiked fears of impinging upon First Amendment rights and putting national security journalists under threat of arrest. “The fact that the United States is seeking to extradite a publisher who is not American, who is not in America, for having published truthful information about America is a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world, and what that says to China and Russia and to other countries,” Robinson says. Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years for leaking military documents to WikiLeaks and served nearly seven years before her sentence was commuted by President Obama in 2017, was recently sent back to prison when she refused to testify before a grand jury that was investigating Assange.
“It’s a lot; I am his longest-serving lawyer, and I have seen the spectrum of the treatment that he has received. It’s made me question the rule of law,” Robinson says. She was first introduced to Assange by Robertson and began representing him in September 2010, shortly before Cablegate (the release of confidential diplomatic cables that revealed under-the-radar deal-making by international embassies). “He said, ‘Jen, I’ve got 250,000 cables and I’m going to publish them.’ But I hadn’t even comprehended the significance of what he’d just told me—he was an Australian with a backpack,” she says with a wry smile. “He said, ‘They will chase me to the ends of the earth, they will make my life hell, but it’s my obligation to make sure that the public sees this information.’ ”
Robinson didn’t expect to be spending a decade on this case; it has far exceeded her wildest expectations. “People ask me what’s going to happen. I say, ‘Well, if someone had told me when I started this case that Donald Trump would be the president of the United States and I’d be visiting Julian inside the Ecuadorian embassy with Pamela Anderson, I would not have believed them,’ ” she says. But she won’t stop fighting, despite the criticism she faces and the increased government scrutiny. “The vilification in the public sphere, in the media, for someone who has really provided a public service is.… There’s a background to why I feel so strongly about why Julian Assange deserves a defense: WikiLeaks revealed war crimes, human rights abuse, and corruption the world over.”
There are no easy answers in this case. Assange has, of course, been accused of sexual assault. While his legion of followers lift him up as a hero for free speech, others see him as a predator. Countless more struggle to hold both images in their mind. Asked whether she thinks that there is a disconnect between her defense of Assange on those allegations in Sweden and her support for #MeToo and victims of abuse, her answer is an unequivocal no. “Everybody deserves a defense, and it’s important that due process is followed,” she says.
Assange has come under attack for WikiLeaks’ release of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, which were a blow to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and which many believe the Trump campaign had a hand in. Robinson maintains that for them to have not released the DNC emails would have been tantamount to censorship. “WikiLeaks and Julian Assange received and published the information in the public interest,” Robinson says. “They don’t hack; they don’t determine what they get. But if they receive it and it’s newsworthy, they’ll publish it. Had WikiLeaks received information about the Trump campaign during the election that was newsworthy, they would have published it. And Julian’s position about the Clinton material is that if he had received Trump information and sat on that, wouldn’t people have been upset with WikiLeaks?”
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of ELLE.