news

Exclusive: Stella Moris kept her relationship with Julian Assange secret. Until she had no choice.

Stella Moris comes across as a reserved person. Quiet. Private. Considered. The kind who comfortably uses silences to organise her thoughts. The kind who, in her words, doesn't like being in the foreground.

"It's not my natural place," she told Mamamia. "It's not something I gravitate towards."

Yet in the past 20 months, the lawyer has become a highly public advocate for perhaps the most famous prisoner on the planet, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Just last week, she fronted a crowd gathered outside London's Royal Courts of Justice, where the US Government is persisting with its efforts to have him extradited to their shores. There, Assange would face espionage charges relating to his involvement in obtaining and publishing secret American military and diplomatic documents via WikiLeaks in 2010. If convicted, he would face up to 175 years behind bars.

"Julian should never be extradited because he was doing his job as a journalist. He has been criminalised as a journalist and the US...is abusing the extradition agreement with this country in order to have this hearing today," Moris said.

"This has to come to an end. Julian has to be freed."

Moris' investment in Assange's situation, and her willingness to step into the international spotlight, is a tangle of the ideological, professional, and deeply personal.

As well as being a former member of the Australian's legal team and an admirer of his renegade brand of journalism, Stella Moris is also Julian Assange's fiancée and the mother of his two youngest children. 

ADVERTISEMENT


Moris and Assange's relationship was forged in secret during the seven years he spent in political asylum in London's Ecuadorian embassy, sheltering out of reach of foreign authorities.

It wasn't until 2020, after he was ejected from the embassy and imprisoned in London's notoriously harsh Belmarsh Prison, that her name hit the headlines. She'd written a letter to the courts in support of his application to be released on bail, for the sake of his mental health and due to COVID-19, which was spreading among the inmates.

"Although an extraordinary degree of public attention has been a constant factor in Julian's existence, I have no wish to depart from my chosen way of conducting my life, quietly and uneventfully," she wrote. 

"I make this statement now only because our lives are on the brink and I fear that Julian could die."

The application was rejected.

In the period since, Moris has been compelled to step, well and truly, into the foreground in an effort to agitate for her fiancé's freedom. That has included being followed by film cameras for two years for the documentary, ITHAKA, which will have its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on November 7.

In the film, and when talking to Mamamia, the weight of Moris' new life is written clearly across her face and in her speech.

She is a woman grappling with the surreality of her situation, one that wouldn't be out of place on the pages of a Hollywood film script (a far-fetched one, at that). But she is also a woman determined, a woman seemingly strong enough to carry it.

When Stella met Julian.

It was in the first eight years of her life, while living primarily in Botswana, that Stella Moris began to develop her sense of social justice.

Her father, an architect and town planner, and her theatre director mother were politically engaged people. They belonged to an art ensemble that made plays and films and posters about the situation in neighbouring South Africa, which was then in the grips of apartheid. 

The group ultimately dissolved in 1985 after the South African Defence Force launched a cross-border raid into Botswana, killing twelve people, four of which were members of the ensemble.

"I was too small to understand what was going on. But that was a really traumatic event for my parents because their closest friend was killed that night," Moris said.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Because of my parents' involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle and all their friends who I've known my entire life — people who are really principled, who fight for what they believe in, who fight for a just society — that was instilled in me from a very early age."

Moris' upbringing also saw her live in Lesotho, Sweden and Spain, but it was her education that took her to the United Kingdom. 

Armed with a bachelor's degree in law and politics, a master's from Oxford and fluency in Swedish, she was recruited to Julian Assange's legal team as a researcher in 2011. 

The then 28-year-old worked on the case fighting the Australian's extradition from the UK to Sweden, where he'd been accused of sexually assaulting two women after a WikiLeaks conference in Stockholm the previous year.

Assange, who firmly denied the allegations, feared returning to Sweden would pave an easier path for extradition to the US where authorities were probing WikiLeaks' publication of the sensational military and diplomatic cables (including the sensational 'Collateral Murder' video that captured the crew of two US Apache helicopters firing on Iraqi civilians in New Baghdad in 2007).

And so, disguised as a motorbike courier, Assange walked up the steps of London's Ecuadorian embassy on June 19, 2012, rang the bell, and requested asylum. 

For the next seven years, there he stayed, at a reported cost to the South American nation of £5 million (AU$9.2 million).

The Ecuadorian embassy where Assange sheltered for seven years. Image: Getty. 

ADVERTISEMENT

It was in 2015, within the confines of his tiny living quarters, that Moris' feelings for Assange — a man whom she described as "intelligent, eloquent, and brave" — shifted from the professional to the romantic. 

As a Spanish speaker, she became a go-to person for meetings between him and the embassy staff. 

"I just enjoyed spending time with him. He's funny, and he loves to explore ideas, and he's just a very interesting person to have a conversation with... As a man, he was just very attractive on every level," she said.

"But he's always been very protective of his privacy, protective of his family, and he was in a very difficult position. I think it took a while for him to know who to trust. It took years to really get to know him."

There was, also for Moris, a hesitation. A voice in her head questioning the virtues of embarking on a relationship with a man effectively imprisoned, with legal battles waging in multiple countries.

"Obviously, it's not the easiest of circumstances," she said. "If I could choose, then I would have met him under different circumstances and we would have just been quite a boring, normal couple. Going on dates, taking a stroll; the whole package.

"You just have to try to chart your own path, together. And we did that."

Out of fears for Moris' security, they kept the relationship secret from all but a select few, using private corners of the embassy apartment in which to be affectionate, out of the view of the many security cameras.

When they later decided to have children, Moris stressed to Mamamia, Assange's legal situation looked optimistic. The Swedish investigation had been dropped, and it appeared there was no reason for him to remain under the embassy's protection for much longer.

"It seemed like we would be able to live our lives as a family," she said.

Still, they took precautions. When Moris fell pregnant with their eldest son, Gabriel, she shared the news with Assange by writing a note on a piece of paper and passing it to him. And when the boy was born in 2017, they enlisted the help of a trusted friend who posed as the baby's father and brought him to the embassy so Assange could spend time with his son. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But according to evidence presented during a 2020 court hearing, there were suspicions. 

Watch: Stella Moris appears in the soon-to-be-released documentary, Ithaka. (Post continues below)

An unnamed employee of UC Global, the security firm employed by the embassy, told the court that the company had been instructed to spy on Assange for "the Americans". He claimed that along with secretly taping Assange's conversations with his lawyers and obtaining his fingerprints, there was a plot to steal one of Gabriel's dirty nappies from a bin in order to establish paternity.

This September, further allegations against US intelligence emerged via a Yahoo News investigation, which featured claims from former counterintelligence officials that, the same year Gabriel was born, senior figures inside the CIA and the Trump administration mulled the possibility of kidnapping or killing Assange within the embassy, going so far as to request "sketches" or "options" for how to assassinate him. 

Moris said that, at the time, both she and Assange suspected they were "prey".

"And because I was the person who was closest to Julian, I felt that I was very clearly a target," she told a press briefing in London last week.

“I felt that maybe they might beat me up or try to kill me or something to get to Julian because they were desperate to drive him out of the embassy.”

By the time Moris fell pregnant with their second son, Max, Assange's relationship with the Ecuadorian government had soured significantly, due in part to suspicions the Australian had been involved in fuelling corruption allegations against new president, Lenín Moreno. 

As well as accusing Assange of turning the embassy into a "centre for spying" that risked Ecuador's relationship with other countries, the government publicly claimed that he had threatened embassy staff, skateboarded and played football inside, blasted loud music, and even smeared fecal matter on the embassy walls. Assange's lawyer described the reports as "outrageous" and "untrue".

But in April 2019, two months after Max was born, Ecuador rescinded Assange's asylum status, allowing police to storm into the embassy and haul Assange, blinking and dazed, out into the world.

British authorities prosecuted him for skipping out on an arrest warrant relating to the Swedish case (for which he has now served his sentence), and later confirmed they had also detained him on behalf of US authorities who, by then, had built their espionage indictment.

ADVERTISEMENT

Assange after his 2019 arrest. Image: Getty. 

The Americans have insisted that prosecuting Assange does not mean they are targeting press freedom or freedom of expression. They say they are purely seeking justice for alleged illegal conduct that includes publishing "the names of human sources, including local Afghans and Iraqis who were assisting U.S. forces... thereby causing grave and imminent risk to these individuals’ lives and liberty.

"As alleged in the indictment, no responsible actor—journalist or otherwise—would have behaved with such wanton disregard for the lives of others."

However, the US Government has not identified a single person killed as a result of being named in the leaked files. And at a 2020 extradition hearing, US prosecutor James Lewis conceded that while some of those named had disappeared, there was no evidence this was directly linked to the WikiLeaks disclosures.

Assange and his legal team have long argued that point, insisting instead that the US charges are politically motivated.

As the case rolls on, Assange remains in limbo in Belmarsh Prison.

ADVERTISEMENT

"I tell the children some people are keeping Julian in 'the big house'."

There's a scene in ITHAKA that features Stella Moris riding the train home after visiting her fiancé behind bars. 

She stares down at her infant son, Max, in the stroller beside her, an expression on her face that is hard to pinpoint. Some combination of heartbreak, exhaustion, and disbelief. 

Those visits, she told Mamamia, are completely surreal. Telling her children that they're going to see Daddy in his "big house". The fluorescent lights. The pat-downs. The contraband checks, in which a prison officer looks inside their mouths and behind their ears ("Max hates that," she said.)

Inside the visitor area there are windows at least, so some natural light. And as of June, an easing of COVID-19 restrictions has meant Assange is allowed to have physical contact with the children. Prior to that, Moris had to keep them seated for the 45-minute visit or risk being kicked out and Assange being placed in two-week quarantine. And that was after several months of not being able to see him at all. 

"Now, the boys sit on his lap and, depending on the guards, they give us as a story to read. He can hug them, that kind of thing," she said.

They're far too young to understand why their father can't come home with them, but Moris does her best to explain.

"I tell them that their father and I love each other very much. And that Julian wants to come home," she said. "I tell them that our home is Julian's home, and that he just can't be there because there are some people keeping him in the big house.

"It's tricky... I don't like the idea of the children growing up feeling like authorities are hostile. I grew up knowing that South African police, and so on, were bad. But I want our children to feel secure. I don't want them to feel scared of the prison. I want them to feel like it's a positive experience."

While she's conscious of the impact these visits will have on her boys, she's more concerned about outside influences tainting their perception of their father.

"Our eldest, Gabriel, he's starting what they call reception here in the UK [roughly equivalent to Australian kindergarten]; he's four. So I'm more worried about how he starts understanding the situation through other people's impressions. The very fact that his father is in a prison, there's such stigma attached to that," she said.

"There's no formula for this. There's no one I can look to to think, 'Okay, well, how did they deal with the situation?' So you just kind of have to improvise your way through it."

ADVERTISEMENT

Stella Moris with her and Julian's two boys, Max and Gabriel. Image: AAP. 

On top of her fiancé's imprisonment and tenuous legal situation, Moris is deeply concerned about his fragile mental health. 

In May 2019, the U.N. special rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, concluded that "in addition to physical ailments, Mr. Assange showed all symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture, including extreme stress, chronic anxiety and intense psychological trauma." And Moris and his legal team say it's only deteriorated since.

In fact, in January, a British judge ruled against his extradition to the US due to the risk he would take his own life. It's that ruling US prosecutors are in the process of appealing this week.

Asked how her mental health is, Moris paused. She looked out the window, wrestling with the answer, almost as if she hadn't really considered it until that moment. 

A full 15 seconds of silence passed before she responded. 

"I'm not sure, frankly," she said. "I don't think I'm giving enough time to my interior state. But on the other hand, I don't know if I really should, because there are all these other imperatives... Maybe that's good for me, actually. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"Mainly, I'm just really worried about Julian. He's in a very nasty place, and over time it becomes incredibly burdensome for him. I think he keeps going because he knows there's a world to come back to that's waiting for him, that's fighting for him."

Moris, too, remains optimistic about the eventual outcome. But she insists her investment is not purely for the sake of her family.

"Major free press and human rights organisations are against what's going on, and have called for Julian's release. "The UN and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Council of Europe; you couldn't hope for better allies. I think that's how clear-cut this case is.

"[The US] is sending a signal that it's okay to prosecute someone who fights for freedom of information, for freedom of expression, for freedom of the press against state abuse... It's just taking the most famous activist for freedom for the public's right to know and putting him in prison. 

"But it's not just the US who has decided to take this case. It's the UK for for allowing him to remain imprisoned, and it's Australia for failing to intervene and stand up for their citizen."

They get through it all by imagining their future, planning the boys' upbringing, Morris said. It keeps them focused.

"He wants the kids to grow up in Australia. He wants me to experience his Australia; he wants to take me to the bush," she said. 

As for marriage? Moris broke into a smile at the mention of it.

"We'll do it properly once he's out, with a big celebration and all our friends," she said. 

"But it's just ridiculous that the political, legal environment is conditioning the most basic decisions of our lives. 

"I want to fight it, you know? I want to fight for our right to exist, in a way. You can't just take it lying down; you have to actually try to push back. Having children and, and getting married is pretty basic, and yet it's still hard for us. But we're going to do it. Hopefully sooner rather than later."

ITHAKA premieres at the Sydney Film Festival on November 7, with additional screenings on November 13 and 14. Visit the SFF website for tickets.

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia

Share with us! Take our survey and you could be one of four to win a $50 gift voucher!