Who is Julian Assange? WikiLeaks founder set to walk free

 (Lucy North / PA Wire)
(Lucy North / PA Wire)

Julian Assange will shortly return to Australia, having reached a plea deal with the US that will see him walk free.

After being released from Belmarsh prison, Assange boarded a plane at Stansted airport destined for Asia this week before travelling to a remote Pacific island for one last hearing.

Assange, 52, is expected to plead guilty to a single criminal charge before returning to his native home of Australia.

It marks a tentative end to a more than decade-long legal saga for the WikiLeaks founder following the release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents linked to US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The news has been met with joy among those closest to Assange, including his wife Stella, who said in a pre-recorded video: “This period of our lives, I’m confident now, has come to an end.”

Various human rights groups and organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have also welcomed his release. “Julian Assange faced a prosecution that had grave implications for journalists and press freedom worldwide,” said CPJ’s CEO Jodie Ginsberg.

Assange has spent years avoiding extradition and long stints in prison after shining light on US wrongdoing linked to wars in the Middle East.

At the helm of WikiLeaks, which is still in operation today, he oversaw the release of countless confidential documents and images, which led to praise for his support of press freedom.

However, his image has also been tarnished by various nefarious allegations, including an accusation of rape that he denies. Here’s what you need to know.

Julian Assange pictured back in 2016 on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)
Julian Assange pictured back in 2016 on the balcony of the Ecuadorean Embassy (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)

Who is Julian Assange?

Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks, and was previously wanted on various espionage charges linked to the release of classified documents on the platform.

At one point, he faced up to 175 years in prison for his alleged involvement in a data breach that led to the release of thousands of US military and government documents.

Assange has long been involved in exposing wrongdoings, with an early bio on WikiLeaks describing him as “Australia’s most famous ethical computer hacker”.

Born in Townsville in Australia in July 1971, Assange had a nomadic childhood while his parents ran a touring theatre.

Assange went to several schools before studying programming, mathematics and physics at Central Queensland University and the University of Melbourne but he did not complete a degree.

He began hacking at the age of 16 under the name Mendex, starting up a hacking group called the International Subversives with two others.

In 1995, Assange was accused of dozens of hacking activities in Australia. He was fined several thousand Australian dollars and only avoided a prison term on the condition that he did not reoffend.

From there, he spent three years working with an academic, Suelette Dreyfus, researching the subversive side of the internet and writing a book with her called Underground.


What is WikiLeaks?

The international non-profit organisation, WikiLeaks, was set up by Assange and several others as an online "dead-letterbox" for whistleblowers and leakers of sensitive information.

Its website, initiated in 2006 in Iceland, published internet censorship lists, leaks and classified media from anonymous sources.

Drone strikes in Yemen, Turkish president Erdogan's post-coup purges and extrajudicial executions in Kenya were just some of the revelations that emerged in material published by the site.

But it wasn't until WikiLeaks began publishing documents by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 that it made headlines around the world and became a household name.

The Manning material included the collateral murder video from April that year, showing US soldiers shooting dead 18 civilians from a helicopter in Iraq, including journalists Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh.

The website went on to release new tranches of documents, including five million confidential emails from US-based intelligence company Stratfor.

The website exists to this day, publishing work by whistleblowers across the web under the editorship of Kristinn Hrafnsonn.

Supporters of Julian Assange outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in May (Lucy North / PA Wire)
Supporters of Julian Assange outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London in May (Lucy North / PA Wire)

Why was Assange facing extradition to the US?

In 2010, Assange was arrested in the UK and later bailed after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual assault.

Swedish authorities wanted to question him over claims that he raped one woman and sexually molested another in August 2010 during a trip to Stockholm where he was giving a lecture. He claims both encounters were entirely consensual.

A long legal battle ensued and he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden. He had always argued that he could not leave the embassy because he feared that he would be extradited from Sweden to the US to be put on trial for allegedly publishing confidential US documents.

He spent seven years inside the embassy before Ecuador suddenly withdrew his asylum status in April 2019.

The country's president, Lenin Moreno, tweeted that Ecuador had taken a "sovereign decision" to withdraw diplomatic protection.

In April 2019, British police arrested him, removing him from the Knightsbridge building and taking him into custody.

On May 1, he was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail in the UK for breaching his earlier bail conditions.

Swedish prosecutors then reopened the investigation into the 2010 rape allegations and the US filed 17 new charges against Assange, alleging that he violated the Espionage Act in relation to the 2010 documents he published.

WikiLeaks called the announcement "madness" and "the end of national security journalism".

As Assange prepared to fight extradition from the UK to the US, Swedish prosecutors announced they would drop the investigation against him because they said the evidence was not strong enough to form the basis of an indictment.

According to press freedom groups, it would create a risky precedent for journalists to face criminal charges for disclosing materials that have been leaked, even in cases where doing so serves the public interest, should Mr Assange be found guilty under the US Espionage Act.

Supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice during the two-day hearing in the extradition case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (PA Wire)
Supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice during the two-day hearing in the extradition case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (PA Wire)

Who has supported him?

Opinions of Assange have been divided for years. Many politicians, activists and celebrities have come out in support of the WikiLeaks founder. These include Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, ex-Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (when a backbench MP) and former Spanish Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias.

He also garnered support from many leading activists and celebrities, including Mary Kostakidis, Noam Chomsky, Vaughan Smith, artist Ai Weiwei, singer Roger Waters, and Vivienne Westwood.

In November 2018, Pamela Anderson, a close friend of Assange, gave an interview with 60 Minutes in Australia in which she asked then prime minister Scott Morrison to "defend your friend, and get Julian his passport back, and take him back to Australia and be proud of him".

On the other hand, others like President Joe Biden have called him a "terrorist", while former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard described his activities as "illegal".

Mike Pompeo called WikiLeaks "a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia".