Profile: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

  • 18 August 2014
  • From the section World
Julian Assange on 14 June 2013

To his supporters, Julian Assange is a valiant campaigner for truth. To his critics, he is a publicity-seeker who has endangered lives by putting a mass of sensitive information into the public domain.

Mr Assange is described by those who have worked with him as intense, driven and highly intelligent - with an exceptional ability to crack computer codes.

He set up Wikileaks, which publishes confidential documents and images, in 2006 - making headlines around the world in April 2010 when it released footage showing US soldiers shooting dead 18 civilians from a helicopter in Iraq.

But, later that year, he was detained in the UK after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant over allegations of sexual assault.

Swedish authorities said they wanted to question him over claims that he raped one woman and sexually molested and coerced another in August that year, while on a visit to Stockholm to give a lecture. He says both encounters were entirely consensual.

He spent the following months fighting extradition while under house arrest in a small rural town in England. Westminster Magistrates' Court approved the extradition in February 2011 and this was later upheld by the High Court.

On 14 June 2012, the UK Supreme Court dismissed his application to re-open the appeal.

A few days later, Mr Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he remains after being granted political asylum by the South American country on 16 August 2012.

The UK government has said it will not allow him safe passage out of the country to fly to Ecuador as it legally obliged to extradite him to Sweden. The Swedish foreign ministry insisted the sole reason they want Mr Assange extradited is so the allegations against him can be properly investigated.

Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patino has urged the UK government to respect his country's sovereign decision.

Reluctant spotlight

Julian Assange has been reluctant to talk about his background, but media interest since the emergence of Wikileaks has given some insight into his influences.

Julian Assange speaks to the media in December 2010

He was born in Townsville, in the Australian state of Queensland, in 1971 and led a nomadic childhood while his parents ran a touring theatre.

He became a father at 18, and custody battles soon followed.

The development of the internet gave him a chance to use his early promise at maths, though this, too, led to difficulties.

In 1995 he was accused with a friend of dozens of hacking activities.

Though the group of hackers was skilled enough to track detectives tracking them, Mr Assange was eventually caught and pleaded guilty.

He was fined several thousand Australian dollars - only escaping a prison term on the condition that he did not reoffend.

He then spent three years working with an academic, Suelette Dreyfus, who was researching the emerging, subversive side of the internet, writing a book with her, Underground, that became a bestseller in the computing fraternity.

Ms Dreyfus described Mr Assange as a "very skilled researcher" who was "quite interested in the concept of ethics, concepts of justice, what governments should and shouldn't do".

This was followed by a course in physics and maths at Melbourne University, where he became a prominent member of a mathematics society, inventing an elaborate puzzle that contemporaries said he excelled at.


He began Wikileaks in 2006 with a group of like-minded people from across the web, creating a web-based "dead-letterbox" for would-be leakers.

"[To] keep our sources safe, we have had to spread assets, encrypt everything, and move telecommunications and people around the world to activate protective laws in different national jurisdictions," Mr Assange told the BBC in 2011.

"We've become good at it, and never lost a case, or a source, but we can't expect everyone to go through the extraordinary efforts that we do."

He adopted a nomadic lifestyle, running Wikileaks from temporary, shifting locations.

He could go long stretches without eating, and focus on work with very little sleep, according to Raffi Khatchadourian, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine who spent several weeks travelling with him.

"He creates this atmosphere around him where the people who are close to him want to care for him to help keep him going. I would say that probably has something to do with his charisma."

Daniel Schmitt, a co-founder, describes Mr Assange as "one of the few people who really care about positive reform in this world to a level where you're willing to do something radical to risk making a mistake, just for the sake of working on something they believe in".

Mr Assange came to prominence with the release of the footage of the US helicopter shooting civilians in Iraq. He promoted and defended the video, as well as the massive releases of classified US military documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars, in July and October 2010.

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

But it also found itself fighting for survival in 2010 when a number of US financial institutions began to block donations.

Bitter battle

Police officers outside the Ecadorean embassy
Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorean embassy in London in June 2012

The recent coverage of Mr Assange remains dominated by Sweden's efforts to question him over the sexual allegations.

He has said that they are politically motivated, part of a smear campaign against him and his whistle-blowing website.

He made a submission to the UK's Leveson Inquiry into press standards, saying he had faced "widespread inaccurate and negative media coverage".

An initial investigation in August 2010 was dropped after only a day, but the following month Sweden's director of prosecution reopened the case.

Mr Assange has been fighting a bitter legal battle ever since his arrest in London in December 2010. He spent eight nights in prison before being released that same month and was put under house arrest without charge, as the guest of wealthy supporters.

After his extradition was approved, Mr Assange indicated his desire to challenge such a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.

He won the right to petition the UK Supreme Court directly in his fight against extradition after judges ruled that his case raised "a question of general public importance".

However, the Supreme Court judges, in a majority decision, ruled against Mr Assange's lawyers and dismissed his challenge that the Swedish prosecutor who had asked for extradition was not a valid judicial authority.

Julian Assange and Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino during a press conference on 18 August 2014
Mr Assange's most recent public statement was made at a press conference with Ecuador's foreign minister

Mr Assange turned to Ecuador's President Rafael Correa for help, the two men having expressed similar views on freedom in the past. During an interview for Mr Assange's TV show on Russia Today, Mr Correa repeatedly praised Wikileaks and its work.

His stay at Ecuadorean Embassy over the last two years has been punctuated by occasional press statements and interviews. Mr Assange and his representatives have also indicated they were seeking to engage the UK government in diplomatic negotiations.

Concerns over his health have also surfaced. As early as October 2012, Ecuador's embassy said it has sought assurances that Mr Assange would not be arrested if he was taken to hospital, saying it is "very concerned" over his condition, indicating he had a lung infection.

But sitting alongside Ecuador's foreign minister at a news conference at the embassy on 18 August this year, Mr Assange dismissed newspaper reports that he would be leaving the embassy to seek medical treatment.

He did, however, make an announcement that appeared to suggest he would be leaving the embassy "soon" for other reasons. Wikileaks' spokesman was quick to clarify that the "plan, as always, is to leave as soon as the UK government decides to honour its obligations in relation to international agreements".

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