Julian Assange: Campaigner or attention-seeker?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in central London, 5 February 2016 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Julian Assange has sought asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012

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 wanted to question him over claims that he raped one woman and sexually molested and coerced another in August 2010, while on a visit to Stockholm to give a lecture. He says both encounters were entirely consensual.

Political asylum

In May 2012, after more than a year of legal argument, which saw lawyers for Mr Assange appeal against his extradition to Sweden, the UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of extradition.

A month later, the Wikileaks founder entered the Ecuadorian embassy in London, requesting - and receiving - political asylum. He has been there ever since.

The Wikileaks founder said he feared being extradited from Sweden to the US and put on trial for releasing secret US documents; the Swedish foreign ministry insisted the sole reason they wanted Mr Assange extradited was so the allegations against him could be properly investigated.

Five years later, Swedish prosecutors say they are dropping their investigation into Mr Assange.

However, the Metropolitan Police says he will still be arrested if he leaves the embassy building.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Assange used a speech in London to urge the US to end its "witchhunt" against Wikileaks

Mr Assange has been generally reluctant to talk about his background, but media interest since the emergence of Wikileaks has thrown up some insight into his influences.

He was born in Townsville, in the Australian state of Queensland, in 1971 and led a rootless 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 Mr Assange 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.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption After pleading guilty to "hacking", Mr Assange escaped prison on the condition 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."

Image caption Mr Assange told the BBC that in order to protect sources he would "encrypt everything"

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

He could go for 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."

Smear campaign

Wikileaks and 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 release of classified US military documents on the Afghan and Iraq wars in July and October 2010.

The Wikileaks 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.

Coverage of Mr Assange has been dominated by Sweden's efforts to question him over the 2010 sexual allegations.

He has said that such efforts were politically motivated and part of a smear campaign against him and his whistle-blowing website.

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.

Mr Assange's stay at the Ecuadorean embassy has been punctuated by occasional press statements and interviews.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Assange dismissed reports in 2014 that he would be leaving the embassy to seek medical treatment

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

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

But in August 2014, Mr Assange dismissed newspaper reports that he would be leaving the embassy to seek medical treatment.

'Significant victory'

Mr Assange later complained to the UN that he was being unlawfully detained as he could not leave the embassy without being arrested.

In February 2016, the UN panel ruled in his favour, stating that he had been "arbitrarily detained" and should be allowed to walk free and compensated for his "deprivation of liberty".

Mr Assange hailed it a "significant victory" and called the decision "binding", leading his lawyers to call for the Swedish extradition request to be dropped immediately.

The ruling was not legally binding on the UK, however, and the UK Foreign Office responded by saying it "changes nothing".

Late last year, Sweden's chief prosecutor Ingrid Isgren travelled to the Ecuadorean embassy in London to question Mr Assange over the 2010 rape allegation. Prosecutors had already dropped their investigation into the sexual assault allegations after running out of time to question and bring charges against him.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Sweden's chief prosecutor Ingrid Isgren (right) visited Ecuador's embassy in London to question Mr Assange

Following Sweden's recent decision to drop the investigation into Mr Assange, the European Arrest Warrant for Mr Assange no longer stands.

But the Metropolitan Police said Mr Assange still faced the lesser charge of failing to surrender to a court in June 2012, an offence punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine.

A statement from the force said it was "obliged to execute that warrant should he leave the Embassy" - meaning he is still at risk of arrest.

A spokesman for the Home Office said it could neither confirm or deny any requests for extradition unless someone had been arrested.

At this point, it is still not known whether Mr Assange will face extradition to the US on leaving the Embassy.

'Face justice'

Mr Assange was granted Ecuadorean citizenship in December 2017.

Ecuador subsequently asked the UK to recognise him as a diplomatic agent - a move that could have given him immunity.

The UK refused saying Mr Assange should leave the embassy and "face justice".

But in July 2018 the two countries confirmed they were holding ongoing talks over his fate, fuelling speculation that the stalemate could yet be broken.

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