My fight to free son whose childhood I missed
Australian architect John Shipton was missing from his son Julian Assange’s life from the time he was three until the WikiLeaks founder was in his 20s — and he gets prickly when asked to explain his long absence.
“It’s none of anyone’s business and it’s an invasion of privacy,” Shipton told The Post last week.
But he’s been making up for lost time.
Shipton, 76, who is a dead ringer for his 51-year-old son, re-entered Julian’s life a few years ago to campaign all over the world for his freedom.
Now he features in his other son Gabriel’s new documentary, “Ithaka,” which details their efforts to pressure the US to drop espionage charges against Assange.
The documentary, screenings, and a speaking tour are the latest chapters in the sprawling saga that started when Assange published Wikileaks in 2010, revealing deeply-held American secrets — about the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — which shocked the world but infuriated the agencies from which they were leaked.
The documentary shows Shipton and Gabriel, who didn’t meet his half-brother Julian until he was nearly 20, trying to rally international support in Europe, Mexico, and the US for the freedom of Assange.
“Ithaka” is both a film about Assange’s legal predicament and a glimpse into a fractured family.
In his unauthorized biography, published in 2011, Assange says his biological father was “missing” from his childhood in Australia. Assange took his stepfather Brett’s surname when his mother, Christine, married him shortly after splitting from Shipton.
But Christine divorced Brett when Julian was nine and took up with a charismatic but violent musician named Leif Meynell who was a member of “The Family” cult, plunging her own family into chaos.
The Assanges’ relationships remain complicated.
Assange has a 34-year-old son called Daniel in Australia, and sons Gabriel, six, and Max, four, with his once-secret wife Stella Moris Assange.
Conceived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was holed up for years, the boys feature in the documentary visiting him in prison, where he buys them chocolate and reads them stories.
Moris, a lawyer, is a key figure in the fight to free him.
Shipton, who’s said he probably shares the same Asperger syndrome diagnosis that Assange got in 2020, is also the father of a five-year-old girl named Severine who is seen briefly in the film, crying when she is sent home to her mother in Australia for her father to continue his crusade here and in Europe.
Assange has now spent almost 13 years in some form of captivity. He has been under fire since 2010 when US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning leaked documents about war crimes carried out by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Among the many devastating revelations that came out of the WikiLeaks video and data dumps was footage WikiLeaks dubbed “Collateral Murder“: a classified US military video showing the indiscriminate killing of over a dozen Iraqis in New Baghdad, including two Reuters news staffers.
The files were published in conjunction with The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel, whose publishers were never charged for printing the material.
Assange took refuge in the embassy in 2012 to avoid arrest on an extradition warrant to Sweden on rape allegations that he always denied and because of threats he would be extradited to the US — and Shipton began to visit him there. The allegations were dropped in 2017, but Assange stayed tucked away.
What brought the wrath of the US Department of Justice down on him was the 2017 publication by WikiLeaks of the so-called “Vault 7,” which included intel about highly sensitive CIA hacking tools. An American employee of the CIA has been convicted for passing on the information to WikiLeaks. Vault 7 was the biggest leak of agency documents in US history.
In 2021, Yahoo News reported that the CIA had considered kidnapping or even assassinating Assange at the time.
After that, Ecuadorian authorities began to sour on Assange, and it became clear that he was being filmed in his quarters.
He and Moris pitched tents inside the embassy to keep their intimate moments private.
Moris, who is seen in the film welling up in tears and excusing herself for a few minutes during a TV interview, says the vibe surrounding Assange got so sinister during that period that she feared she might be killed every time she left the embassy to go home.
After that, Ecuadorian authorities began to sour on Assange, and it became clear that he was being filmed in his quarters. Assange’s team told The Post that the embassy security contractor was bribed and instead began surveillance of Assange, and his visitors including his lawyers, doctors and journalistic partners.
The surveillance tapes were personally transported to the US by the security contractor who in an email to his employees said: “We now work for the dark side.”
Assange was forced out of the embassy in 2019 and immediately arrested for avoiding the 2012 warrant.
He was sent to maximum-security Belmarsh Prison in the suburbs of London, where Shipton visited him and Assange asked for his help.
Now, having served his sentence for avoiding arrest, Assange is appealing an extradition order to the US where he could face 175 years in prison for his part in leaking American diplomatic cables and Pentagon files in 2010.
Shipton says that his role now is simply to get his son “out of the s–t,” not talk about their past.
“How the details of my early life and Julian’s early life would help is a complete mystery to me,” Shipton said. “Unless there’s a Magic Pudding you can put it in and sort of turn it into a key that opens a door to his cell … it seems to me to be just an invasion of privacy.”
Shipton sees focusing on his son and their relationship in an interview as a distraction from the secrets Wikileaks revealed, just as he sees prosecuting solely Assange as a distraction tactic by the US government.
“This is all a scurrilous attempt to ruin a man’s life and take the focus away from [the war crimes] he reported,” Shipton said. “You see in the Iraq war files, the Guantanamo Bay war files, and the Afghan war files all elements of impropriety and you see that the executives who published them still have their indemnity.
“They put the whole focus on Julian Assange so we constantly see Julian and elements of his character and his family but we never look at the terrible revelations that … Wiki Leaks showed us.”
Shipton said there have been positive developments. Assange is no longer kept in his cell for 23 hours a day, as he was during COVID, and he now has his own family for comfort.
“He has a devoted wife, who attends to his children, and some of his emotional needs because she still has phone access,” Shipton said. “They can speak for 10 minutes, and then wait another 10 minutes and then speak for 10 minutes again. Also, they can visit. Usually Julian will ring me every other day except when I’m in America where my phone doesn’t work. So we can give him progress reports.”
But Shipton said it’s even better when people write letters of support to him or when crowds gather outside the jail to call for his release: “This all lifts the heart and keeps the spirit elevated.”
Moris told The Post that Julian makes the best out of the prison visits for their sons.
“The kids sometimes try to bring, you know, a stone or a flower or something like this but they check everything so you can’t,” Stella said. “And a few weeks ago, our eldest tried to smuggle in some flowers that were in his hood. But that didn’t work.”
Like Shipton, she says she has ‘”faith, not hope” that Julian will be released and come home to his family. Nor does she doubt the life she has chosen with him.
“I don’t have any regrets,” she said. “Because I think the hardest part in life is finding a life partner. And you know, I definitely found that. And we have a commitment to make our life journey together. I try to imagine what our life will be like when Julian’s out because I see this situation as transitory and I feel one day he will be free and he will be vindicated.”