Julian Assange freed on bail

[Editor's note: Britain's high court granted bail to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder wanted in Sweden for questioning over allegations of rape. Justice Duncan Ouseley on Thursday agreed with a decision by a senior district judge earlier in the week to release Assange on strict conditions: a 200,000 British pound ($312,000) cash deposit, plus 40,000 pounds more guaranteed and strict conditions on his movement, The Guardian newspaper reported. Despite being granted bail Tuesday, Assange had remained in Wandsworth prison as prosecutors gave notice they would appeal. Assange is fighting attempts to extradite him to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct including rape made by two female WikiLeaks volunteers, which he denies.]

When it comes to publicity and matters of principle, Julian Assange might well have met his match in Geoffrey Robertson.

Australians of a certain age will certainly appreciate Assange's choice of attorney to defend him against extradition to Sweden on rape charges, and possible prosecution in the United States on perhaps even graver grounds.

On the face of it, Robertson, an Australian who made a name for himself in Britain as a high-profile attorney, author and human rights defender, seems ideally suited to the task.

He is, in equal parts, a tough adversary of governments and their agents (he prosecuted the Malawian dictator Hastings Banda, defended dissidents detained by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and served as a judge on the United Nations war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone) and a celebrity in his own right (having defended such high-profile clients as Salman Rushdie, The Guardian newspaper and, for those who can remember, Oz magazine).

It seems a natural fit, knowing what the public does about the secretive, and by all accounts very peculiar, WikiLeaks founder. Assange, the man behind the recent public releases of thousands of damning diplomatic cables, is nothing if not dissenting. He is also a self-described human rights activist, an unapologetic publicity hound (though he told The New Yorker in an interview his insistence on presenting the sole public face of WikiLeaks was to protect his collaborators), and one of the most-mentioned names in the news cycle of late.

But Robertson's appearance to defend Assange at the Old Bailey on Tuesday will have more than a few of their compatriots wondering: did plain old nostalgia play a part in this high-voltage legal match-up?

Watch Assange speak after being released from jail:

In Australia, the Sydney born and bred Robertson is perhaps best known as the host of the once wildly-popular TV show "Hypotheticals." The program, first aired in the late 1980s, pitted Robertson against those of notable Australians from politics, sports and entertainment, requiring them to discuss contemporary issues by assuming imagined identities in hypothetical situations.

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Just as Americans of a certain generation gathered around their television sets to catch "60 Minutes," "Hypotheticals" was required weekly viewing in many a middle-class Australian households.

Chances are that Assange — who grew up on sleepy Magnetic Island in Australia's northeast and reportedly a precocious intellect with a social justice bent — was familiar with the program. Perhaps, like most of us, he was even admiring Robertson's formidable legal mind, astoundingly broad frame of reference, razor-sharp wit and take-no-prisoners approach to debate on tough issues of the day.

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Ellingham Hall, the country retreat of Vaughan Smith, where Julian Assange will reportedly stay upon being released on bail. Smith is a friend and supporter of Assange and founder of London’s Frontline Club. 

In short, being in a position to meet, let alone retain the services, of Robertson must appeal on some level to the ego of a man like Assange, beset as he is with legal problems and in need of a damn good lawyer.

A better understanding of the synergy between the two can be had by reading two recently published articles on the pair — The New Yorker’s Assange profile, and one on Robertson in The Independent.

A sense of isolation during their respective impressionable youths is one of them.

"Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer,” Assange tells the New Yorker of his upbringing in various sedate coastal towns. “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels.” He wrote of himself and a teenage friend, “We were bright sensitive kids who didn’t fit into the dominant subculture and fiercely castigated those who did as irredeemable boneheads.”

Robertson, who grew up in a quiet Sydney neighborhood, "was afflicted by heavy acne as a teenager, he didn't socialize much and developed the habits of a workaholic."

Assange, though homeschooled, studied informally with university professors and read voraciously. He was drawn to science and in the pre-internet era, excelled in computer-related pursuits; by age 16 he had established a reputation as a sophisticated programmer who could break into the most secure networks.

Robertson, after completing a law degree in Sydney, traveled to the United Kingdom on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford and almost immediately made a name for himself defending the publishers of an underground satirical magazine called Oz, which had been charged with "a conspiracy to corrupt public morals." Although the defense failed, Robertson's career took off.

After a few years adrift on turbulent seas of life, love and hackerdom, Assange "came to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution" and founded WikiLeaks to battle "illegitimate governance" using leaks as an "instrument of information warfare."

For Robertson, cause celebre followed cause celebre — with Robertson usually on the side of a David taking on the Goliath of big government. In 1978 he defended two journalists who had been accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act when they interviewed a former intelligence officer. The acquittal of the journalists was a landmark victory for press freedom. The rest of Robertson's stellar career thus far, is well-documented history.

Do you see an inevitability forming?

The Independent’s Ben Chu spells out one scenario for how these two men, with little to link them but much in common, should join forces under the most adversarial and public of circumstances on the opposite side of the world. “The case of the WikiLeaks founder, combining as it does high liberal principle, low scandal and massive publicity, might have been designed with Robertson specifically in mind.”

Ask an Australian of a certain age whether they could have foreseen it, and don't be surprised if they respond: "Why, yes. Who didn't watch "Hypotheticals?"

[Editor's note: Twitter users must wait until Monday to learn whether they can send tweets during proceedings in British courts. In what commentators called a legal first, journalists and supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were allowed to tweet blow-by-blow accounts of proceedings during a bail hearing earlier on Tuesday, only to be banned Thursday by another judge. The judicial communications office said the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge woud issue new guidance for all courts on Monday.

And in a development Wednesday in the WikiLeaks case, the U.S. Air Force on Wednesday cut off access to over 25 sites, including WikiLeaks and three newspapers that have worked with the site to release a cache of U.S. diplomatic cables. The move to censor the documents, already widely disseminated on the internet, by cutting online access to such publications New York Times, The Guardian in Britain and Germany's Der Spiegel has been described as a "pointless."]