Stella Assange: ‘We Just Want To Be Reunited. The Children Need Their Father And They’re Growing Up’

As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange seeks a US Pardon after accepting a plea deal with the US DOJ, we revisit our 2023 interview with his wife Stella Assange

Stella Assange

by Claire Cohen |
Published on

This interview was originally published in Grazia magazine in August 2023.

Stella Assange is on holiday. Sort of. When we speak via video call on a sunny morning, she has been in France for just a few hours, Assange lost his latest appeal against extradition to the US, where he faces trial under the Espionage Act for his alleged part in the 2010 publication of classified military documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (They included a video that recorded a US Army helicopter crew killing civilians in Baghdad.) The maximum sentence is 175 years.

‘He’s closer to extradition than he’s ever been,’ says Stella, 40. ‘Every visit might be one less time that I see him until he’s taken away from me. That’s why I can’t afford to miss them. We may just have a month or two. Once he’s disappeared into the US prison system, I’ve no idea how much I’ll even be able to speak to him. It could be one half- hour phone call a month. That’s torture.’

Assange’s extradition was signed off last June by Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, prompting the most recent appeal. Previous attempts to remove him to the US have been rejected by the UK courts on mental health grounds. Stella remains worried. ‘Julian is at great risk of suicide, because the US wants to put him in a hellhole that will drive him to it,’ she says. ‘The only thing that’s keeping him alive is the prospect of seeing his family and having a chance for freedom.’

Assange, 51, has been in Belmarsh since his arrest in 2019. Prior to that, he spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, having sought asylum there in 2012, after breaking his bail conditions to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced allegations of rape and sexual assault, which were later dropped.

Stella, a human rights lawyer who was raised by anti-apartheid activist parents in South Africa, joined his team in 2011. By 2015 they were an item. They managed to keep their relationship and growing family a secret until 2020, when Assange applied – unsuccessfully – to be bailed to her house.

The couple married within the prison walls last year in front of six guests, Stella wearing a silver dress by their friend, the late Vivienne Westwood. (Other high-profile fans of his have included Pamela Anderson and Jemima Khan.)

‘On the day it felt like Julian and I were treated like human beings, for a change,’ she recalls. ‘They say love conquers all, and it felt like we conquered Belmarsh for a few hours and turned it into a celebration of life rather than a place that suppresses it. There were a lot of contradictory emotions when I left.’

Their feelings for one another, she says, grew ‘gradually’ when Assange was in the embassy, being visited by family and friends. ‘I got to know him outside of the WikiLeaks context. There were dinners and movie nights with friends and, eventually, we ended up having date nights.’

So who made the first move? Stella laughs, the strain momentarily lifting, and breaks into a wide smile. ‘Julian, probably... he’s very mischievous, which is not how people know him publicly.’

Well, yes. It’s hard to know what word to reach for when describing Assange’s public profile. He has been called everything from narcissistic to misogynistic. And it’s hard to forget those sexual misconduct allegations (which he denies), made in Sweden by two women Assange had slept with in 2010. Although the investigation was dropped, surely it has played on Stella’s mind?

She sighs. ‘The first thing I looked into when I got involved in Julian’s case was those allegations. It was important, not just professionally, but personally to have an understanding of what had happened. I did my homework,’ she says. ‘That’s how I had no qualms about getting involved, because it was clear to me from the police reports that there was no case to answer.’ Whether that will satisfy those who point out that he made himself unavailable to be tried is another question. At the time, women’s groups feared that failing to extradite Assange to Sweden would endorse ‘rape culture’.

Having to constantly defend the man she loves is, Stella says, ‘frustrating’. ‘I understand why the questions are there. But it’s so bizarre to me, because he’s the most wonderful, brilliant person. I’m the lucky one to be with him. The bad things people imagine about Julian? It’s the precise opposite and that’s no coincidence because, to sully a person’s reputation, you say the reverse. You say they’re a narcissist and that they’re in it for fame.’ Did friends try to warn her off ? ‘I did lose friends over this,’ she admits. ‘Some of them understood, but some didn’t. It’s not that you can’t trust your friends, but you can’t expect them to have the same degree of discretion or know what the stakes are.

You’re talking about spies and intelligence agencies – that’s a bizarre reality for people to understand.’ Those stakes also involve press freedom: the case for freeing Assange hangs on the argument that he is being punished to deter journalists and whistleblowers from holding the powerful to account. Whatever you think of the man himself, it’s a worrying prospect that has won him the support of the UN, human rights organisations, including PEN International, and world leaders.

‘It’s an abuse of everything that democratic societies supposedly stand for, to put someone who published information in prison. It’s basically revenge, dressed up as a legal process, to silence him and bully the press into being more compliant,’ says Stella. ‘His treatment is a sign of a decline in the UK’s political landscape. It no longer prides itself on the principles of openness, free press and not tolerating political prosecutions. Julian’s case is a proclamation to the world that the UK no longer stands for what it used to.’

Their sons, she says optimistically, know that ‘millions of people around the world are fighting for their father to be free’. The couple decided to start a family in 2016, when Assange’s release had seemed likely.

‘We wanted the stability that we had found in each other to grow,’ she says. ‘But when we found out that I was pregnant, then it was like, wow, how are we going to manage this? Could the embassy use it against him? Could it be leaked to the press? These are not things that expectant parents are supposed to be dealing with. ‘But we were very excited and happy. And all sorts of difficulties appear in life – it doesn’t have to be about the CIA and the Espionage Act. That just happens to be our circumstances.’

They have talked about their hopes for the future: a new life in Assange’s native Australia, settling in the hippyish city of Lismore, where Assange lived as a child, or Melbourne. ‘As bad as the extradition is, it has to be counterbalanced by the prospect of what we want if he’s freed,’ says Stella. ‘We just want to be reunited. The children need their father and they’re growing up.’

They have not, however, made plans for what the family will do should Assange be removed to the US. ‘I can’t start thinking about the extradition because I’m so focused on stopping it,’ says Stella. ‘What good is it to think about it? Because if it comes to that, there’s nothing more I can do.’

Claire Cohen is an award-winning journalist and the author of ‘BFF? The Truth About Female Friendship’.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us