World

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 spent almost seven years inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London

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 - 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 had 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 and a long legal battle ensued which saw him seek asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition.

After spending almost seven years inside the embassy, Mr Assange was arrested by British police on 11 April 2019. It came after Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno tweeted his country had taken "a sovereign decision" to withdraw his asylum status.

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Media captionVideo footage shows Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy in London

The Wikileaks founder had always argued that he could not leave the embassy because he feared being extradited from Sweden to the US and put on trial for releasing secret US documents. Officers removed him from the embassy's premises and took him into custody at a central London police station.

Hacking

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.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption After pleading guilty to "hacking", Mr Assange escaped prison on the condition he did not reoffend

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.

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.

Wikileaks work

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 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."

Key dates in legal battle

  • May 2012: The UK's Supreme Court rules he should be extradited to Sweden to face questioning over the allegations
  • June 2012: Mr Assange enters the Ecuadorean embassy in London
  • August 2012: Ecuador grants asylum to Mr Assange, saying there are fears his human rights might be violated if he is extradited
  • August 2015: Swedish prosecutors drop their investigation into two allegations - one of sexual molestation and one of unlawful coercion because they have run out of time to question him. But he still faces the more serious accusation of rape
  • May 2017: Sweden's director of public prosecutions announces that the rape investigation into Mr Assange is being dropped
  • December 2017: Mr Assange is granted Ecuadorean citizenship
  • October 2018: Mr Assange is given a set of house rules at the Ecuadorean embassy in London

Read the full timeline

'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 whistle-blowing 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.

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

Coverage of Mr Assange was then dominated by Sweden's efforts to question him over the 2010 sexual allegations. He said such efforts were politically motivated and part of a smear campaign.

Mr Assange turned to then Ecuador's President Rafael Correa for help, the two men having expressed similar views on freedom in the past.

His stay at the Ecuadorean embassy was punctuated by occasional press statements and interviews. 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 but in August 2014, Mr Assange dismissed 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".

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

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".

In 2016, 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

Since Sweden dropped its investigation into Mr Assange, the European Arrest Warrant for him 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.

And it was a warrant based on this charge which led to his arrest in 2019. Citing the warrant issued by Westminster Magistrates' Court on 29 June 2012, the Metropolitan police said Mr Assange had been "taken into custody at a central London police station where he will remain, before being presented before Westminster Magistrates' Court as soon as possible".

The police said it had been invited into the embassy by the Ecuadorean ambassador.

Ecuador's shifting position

Ecuador's position vis-à-vis Mr Assange changed after President Correa, a strong advocate of Wikileaks, was succeeded in office by Lenín Moreno.

Mr Moreno and his government had grown increasingly frustrated with Mr Assange and his refusal to follow the rules they had imposed for his continued stay in the embassy.

In his video statement, President Moreno said he had "inherited this situation" and that Mr Assange had ignored Ecuador's requests to "respect and abide by these rules".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption From the embassy's balcony, Mr Assange urged the US to end its "witchhunt" against Wikileaks

His decision, Mr Moreno said, followed "repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols" by Mr Assange.

He said that in particular, Mr Assange had "violated the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states", most recently in January 2019 when Wikileaks had released documents from the Vatican.

In a video statement, President Moreno also said that he had requested that Great Britain guarantee that Mr Assange would not be extradited to a country where he could face torture or the death penalty.

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