Julian Assange: the man behind WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since 2012 in an embassy in Britain, where a UN panel says he has been arbitrarily detained.

How an Australian ended up seeking asylum from the U.S., Sweden in the Ecuadorian Embassy in Britain

WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange has been under diplomatic protection in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since 2012 in an embassy in Britain, where a UN panel says he has been arbitrarily detained.

Assange, an Australian, is living under diplomatic protection in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest by Swedish and U.S. authorities.

He has faced death threats over his group's release of secret military and other forms of classified information and is the focus of U.S. and European investigations into his involvement in WikiLeaks as well as for alleged sexual misconduct.

These are some of the major events in Assange's recent career as head of WikiLeaks, one of the world's best-known whistle-blowing organizations.

Loved and reviled

Assange is extolled by human rights groups on the one hand and despised by governments and institutions around the world on the other when it comes to his whistle-blowing activities — often for the same reason.

For someone who espouses openness and transparency, Assange is a private and secretive man. He has acknowledged the use of "four bases" in the years prior to seeking shelter in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, including ones in Iceland, Kenya and Sweden.

Born in July 1971 in Townsville on Australia's northeastern coast, Assange's parents ran a touring theatre company that travelled a lot.

WikiLeaks supporters hold up pictures in support of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Madrid. ((Paul Hanna/Reuters))
His mother later divorced from Assange's father,  and married a man who was part of a cult that Assange has joked about spending time running away from when he was young.

In his youth, Assange reportedly attended 37 schools and six universities. He studied physics and math at the University of Melbourne, but never completed a degree. In his 20s and early 30s, he was a computer programmer of free software in Melbourne before starting WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks, which he founded in 2006, is known for posting classified government documents, supplied by whistle-blowers, in their entirety. Highly controversial ones have included the hundreds of thousands of secret reports on the wars in Iraq, released in October 2010, and on Afghanistan, which drew the CIA's attention to him.

The spotlight veered back onto WikiLeaks and Assange in late November 2010, when the website began posting classified diplomatic cables between the U.S. State Department and its embassies that news outlets seized on to publish details of frank and unflattering assessments of world leaders, as well as candid views of rogue nations and discussions about global crises.

Julian Assange holds a news conference in London in October 2010 after the release of 400,000 U.S. military documents about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The files revealed 15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths. ((Lennart Preiss/Associated Press))

Revelations include that the U.S. ordered its spies to collect DNA, bank account information and other personal information on UN officials, in violation of international law; that attacks on militants in Yemen, which the local government avowed were its own counterinsurgency efforts, were in fact the covert work of the United States; and that Arab leaders have implored the U.S. to confront Iran with military might.

To some, Assange is a hero for these and other disclosures. He won an Amnesty International Media Award in 2009, was named by Utne Reader in December 2010 as one of 25 visionaries changing the world and was considered for Time magazine's 2010 Person of the Year.

In a TedTalk in July 2012, Assange provided some insight into his core values. "Capable, generous men do not create victims. They nurture victims, and that's something from my father and something from other capable, generous men that have been in my life," he said. "I am a combative person, so I'm not actually so big on the nurturing, but there's another way of nurturing victims, which is to police perpetrators of crimes."

Despite his good intentions, he's still viewed by some as a dangerous troublemaker, one that the U.S. government and other countries, including his native Australia, are trying to prosecute. 

Former U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has accused President Barack Obama of not doing enough to stop Assange and wrote in a Facebook posting in November 2010, "Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?"

Assange noted the threats against him, as well as an American blogger's call for his 20-year-old son to be harmed, in an op-ed article about WikiLeaks in the newspaper the Australian in December 2010. "The media helps keep government honest. WikiLeaks has revealed some hard truths about the Iraq and Afghan wars, and broken stories about corporate corruption," Assange wrote.

News photographers swarm a prison van transporting Assange after he was ordered to be held in jail at a court hearing in London in December 2010. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

"People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies. If a war is justified, then tell the truth and the people will decide whether to support it."

Assange went on to address critics alleging that his website has put people's lives risk. "WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed. But the U.S., with Australian government connivance, has killed thousands in the past few months alone."

On June 1, 2013, Assange published another column in The New York Times about The New Digital Age, a book by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen that analyzes the role of technology in transforming global culture, where he criticized Google for becoming a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

While he remains a resident of Ecuador's embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, Assange continues to receive guests and remains active on the world stage. 

Extradition battle

The Ecuadorian flap is the latest development in Assange's ongoing battle against extradition to Sweden.

Swedish authorities issued a European arrest warrant for Assange in December 2010 in connection with accusations that he had unwanted, unprotected sex with two female WikiLeaks volunteers during a trip to Stockholm in August 2010.

The 40-year-old Australian and self-described "lightning rod" turned himself in to police in London on Dec. 7, 2010, and was released on bail.

Assange has argued that he wouldn't get a fair trial in Sweden if he is extradited and that the extradition would violate his human rights. He also fears that in Sweden, he would be in greater danger of being extradited to the U.S., which is considering pursuing charges against Assange over the publication of classified documents.

He lost his initial appeal of the extradition order when a U.K. judge ruled on Feb. 24, 2011, that he could be extradited.

Following that ruling, Assange hired a new legal team and launched a new appeal. In November 2011, the British High Court rejected Assange's appeal, but in December Britain's Supreme Court agreed to hear the case against extradition. Assange appeared before Britain's Supreme Court on Feb. 1, 2012, to make his final appeal against extradition to Sweden over sex crime allegations.

The Supreme Court ruled in May 2012 that Assange could be sent to Sweden to face the charges. Assange filed papers on June 13, 2012, asking Britain's Supreme Court to reopen his extradition case, an unusual legal manoeuvre aimed at blocking his removal to Sweden. The next day, Britain's Supreme Court rejected the move, and on June 19 Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Julian Assange arrives at Belmarsh Magistrates' Court in London on Feb. 24, 2011, the day a judge ruled he could be extradited to Sweden over sex crimes allegations. (Associated Press)

Police in London ordered Assange to surrender at a police station 10 days later, but he refused. British officials said Assange was beyond their reach in the embassy, but add that he would be arrested if he left the embassy for breaching his bail conditions.

On July 2, 2012, the chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein, called for Assange to be prosecuted for espionage. The U.S. Justice Department also confirmed it is conducting a criminal investigation into the Wikileaks case.

Ecuador granted Assange's request for political asylum. The U.K. Foreign Office released a statement Aug. 16, 2012, saying it was "disappointed" with Ecuador's decision, and added that it was committed to a negotiated solution that would let it "carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act." U.K. officials also threatened to use a 1987 law to lift the Ecuadorian Embassy's diplomatic status.

Sweden called the decision to grant asylum to Assange "unacceptable."

Arrest possible

Assange is living in an apartment inside the embassy, and continues to receive visitors. He announced on Aug. 18, 2014, at a news conference alongside Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino that he planned to leave the building "soon.

"I am leaving the embassy soon ... but perhaps not for the reasons that Murdoch press and Sky news are saying at the moment," Assange told reporters at the embassy in central London during the media conference. Media reports prior to the press conference had indicated Assange was in poor health.

But Britain signaled it would still arrest him if he tried, and Assange stayed put.

In May 2015, Sweden's Supreme court rejected an appeal from Assange to revoke a detention order over the allegations of sexual assault.

Assange launched a bid to seek asylum in France, but President Francois Hollande rejected it in July 2015, although he did note that WikiLeaks had revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on Hollande and his two predecessors, along with leading French companies.

Julian Assange speaks to media from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in central London on Aug. 19, 2012. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

The following month, Swedish prosecutors dropped two of the sex crime cases against Assange, but said they still wanted to question him on accusations of rape made after that visit to Stockholm. 

British police had stationed officers outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in July 2012, but removed them in October 2015. The decision came as police said that because there was "no imminent prospect of a diplomatic or legal resolution to this issue," a round-the-clock police presence was "no longer proportionate."

Money woes

Besides Assange's personal legal problems, his organization was also been increasingly cut off from sources of financing.

On Oct. 24, 2011, Assange announced that the WikiLeaks site would temporarily stop publishing cables because it had run out of money. He blamed the group's woes on an "unlawful financial blockade" that began in 2010 when Bank of America, MasterCard, VISA, PayPal and Western Union refused to accept donations for the site.

These developments highlight an aspect of Assange that's been debated ever since WikiLeaks jolted the world in July 2010 with its release of 75,000 secret U.S. military documents on the Afghanistan invasion: that the internet activist is as controversial as the website is transparent.

Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London: In June 2014 his website released what it calls a secret draft agreement among 50 countries to limit regulation of financial services. (Associated Press)
Those documents and the subsequent ones WikiLeaks has released are believed to have been provided to the group by U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley.

Manning was convicted of sending classified documents to WikiLeaks and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

But it has been Assange, not Manning, who has garnered most of the headlines and media spotlight. Even during his house arrest, Assange has continued to do media interviews and make public appearances.

What's next?

If Assange is extradited to Sweden to face the charges of sexual misconduct, there is a risk the United States could indict Assange and then seek his transfer from Sweden, with which it has an extradition treaty.

Several American commentators and politicians have urged charges against Assange under the U.S.'s Espionage Act or for possession of stolen government property.

The U.S. government has not revealed whether he has been indicted — U.S. grand jury proceedings are secret — but has indicated that sensitive investigations into Assange and WikiLeaks have been made.

The UN working group that declared on Feb. 6, 2016, that he has been detained arbitrarily says Assange could face "refoulement" to the United States — being handed over to a country where he could face violence or prison. The UN upholds the principle of non-refoulement prohibiting that practice.​

With files from The Associated Press