MELBOURNE, Australia >> More than five years ago, on two different continents and only days apart, an Australian woman and an Australian man entered indefinite detention.
For the woman, a defense lawyer at the International Criminal Court, being arrested was a relatively brief but harrowing affair, punctuated by armed men, dark rooms and aggressive interrogation. For the man, who co-founded WikiLeaks, detention continues, though some might say voluntarily.
The lawyer, Melinda Taylor, would go on to represent the man, Julian Assange.
Taylor, now 42, has earned a reputation for defending the rights of individuals condemned by the court of public opinion before they have set foot inside an actual courtroom. Her clients have included Assange and Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, the deposed Libyan strongman.
Assange, perhaps best known for publishing leaked U.S. military documents, has remained inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012, after the Swedish authorities issued a warrant for his arrest over a rape accusation.
He made headlines again in January when Ecuador announced it had granted him citizenship, and planned to give him diplomatic status, in an effort to evict him from the embassy without his being extradited. Though Sweden is no longer seeking his extradition, Assange has said he fears the United States will prosecute him over the document leaks.
“I think the situation is untenable and that there has to be a solution now, not later,” Taylor said of Assange. “He’s at risk of an ongoing prosecution by the United States.”
Recently, Taylor tried to bolster the case for Assange’s release by writing a brief for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is expected to issue a ruling, at the behest of Ecuador, in the coming months.
Taylor was among a group of attorneys who represented Assange at a 2016 hearing before a United Nations human rights panel, which ruled that he had been arbitrarily detained in violation of international law.
Born in Brisbane, Australia, Taylor studied law at the University of Queensland, graduating in 1997.
Soon after finishing there, while backpacking through Europe at the age of 22, she learned she had landed a coveted internship with Antonio Cassese, an Italian lawyer who was the first president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Taylor had read Cassese’s speeches as a student.
Carrying only a backpack full of shabby clothes, Taylor asked her father to mail her something she could wear to her first job in The Hague. “They were completely inappropriate,” she said, recalling those outfits.
Speaking from her home in The Hague, Taylor said she was drawn to defense work because it was essential to maintaining rights for everyone.
“To have justice, it’s two sides of the coin,” she said. “You need defense. You can vindicate rights for someone when no one else might want to vindicate rights for them.”
No willing client should be denied a defense, she said, no matter how horrendous his crimes. “They’re the ones I think you should take. I would never not defend someone because of who they are.”
In June 2012, those principles were tested when she represented Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, who had been accused of war crimes — a decision that led to her incarceration in a Libyan military facility.
While conducting interviews with Gadhafi, after the coup that resulted in his father’s ouster and death, Taylor and three of her colleagues were arrested by Libyan security forces.
The Libyans accused Taylor of carrying coded messages to her client and claimed she had used a “spy pen” with an embedded camera when meeting with him.
It was the first time lawyers working for the International Criminal Court, who have immunity from arrest, had been detained.
“At the beginning, it was incredibly frightening,” Taylor recalled, “but it was also the kind of thing you think, ‘Oh, this will just be over in an hour.’”
Instead, her detention lasted 26 days. Unbeknown to Taylor and her colleagues, representatives from Australia and the International Criminal Court and lawyers from around the world were campaigning for their release.
“It was a great shock,” said Anthony Cassimatis, a law professor at the University of Queensland who had taught Taylor 15 years earlier. “She felt very strongly that he was entitled to a fair trial. I think she would do it again, in terms of ensuring that he was given appropriate defense protection.”
The detained lawyers were each allowed a single five-minute phone call. Taylor spoke with her husband, Geoff Roberts, who is also an attorney in The Hague, and her then-2-year-old daughter.
“Nothing in my legal training had readied me for it,” she said of her arrest, adding that the experience had made her more sympathetic to detainees.
“I don’t think, until you’ve been in detention, you can appreciate what it’s like. You have no ability to know what’s happening — those four walls control your life.”
Safely back in the Netherlands, Taylor took a single day to acclimate before returning to work. Two years later, she was offered a meeting in London with another Australian: Assange.
The pair met at the Ecuadorean Embassy for two hours.
“It was quite surreal, actually, to compare our experiences,” she said.
In the years since that first meeting, Taylor has seen Assange’s public standing change. Many who once saw him as a champion of liberal transparency now consider him a lawless partisan who enabled Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election on Donald Trump’s behalf.
Though she has represented only Assange, not WikiLeaks, Taylor defended the organization’s decision to publish the emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, at a key point in the race.
“WikiLeaks was not seeking to put someone in power. WikiLeaks was seeking to empower people to make informed choices,” Taylor said. “How can you hold your politicians to account unless you know their views?”
The leaked emails published by WikiLeaks, like the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump’s crude remarks published by The Washington Post and Trump’s leaked tax return obtained by The New York Times, demonstrate the importance of transparency, Taylor said.
“When liberals criticize WikiLeaks, they’re not looking at the bigger picture. WikiLeaks has actually given birth to this idea that this information should come out, that we should hold people to account,” she said. “When you look at something like the #MeToo campaign, it’s a similar idea — the system was broken. WikiLeaks has encouraged a process.”
Asked how, as a feminist, she could defend Assange, a man who has been accused of rape and frequently called a misogynist, Taylor implied that the question was itself misogynistic.
“That seems to have an implicit assumption that women can’t be defense counsel,” she said. “That we can’t make impartial choices about representation issues, that we can’t see issues of process. I would have an issue with that.” She added that she believed Assange’s accusers had a right to be heard.
“As a female, I think women should be able to do whatever we want to do,” Taylor said. “I’m passionate about fair trial, and I’m passionate about female rights.”
“And I can reconcile the two,” she added, “because I don’t have to choose.”