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The Julian Assange case — a timeline

Sabine Kinkartz | Matthias von Hein
June 25, 2024

The whistleblower and founder of WikiLeaks is allowed to return to his home country of Australia after 14 years. DW has a timeline.

Protesters hold placards outside the High Court in London, Monday, May 20, 2024.
The drama surrounding Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has preoccupied the global public for yearsImage: Kin Cheung/AP Photo/picture alliance

The case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which has now dragged on for some 14 years, has a political and legal dimension that goes far beyond the documents Wikileaks once published. DW documents the developments:

1. Biographical

Julian Assange was born on July 3, 1971, in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. As a young man, he was interested in computer technology and learned to program. In the 1990s, he made a name for himself in the Australian hacker community and ended up in an Australian court in 1996 for hacking attacks. The judge sentenced him, but also attested to his "intellectual curiosity."

2. Founding WikiLeaks

In 2006, Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks. The platform sees itself as a "multi-national media organization and associated library," which "specializes in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption," as the WikiLeaks website puts it.

WikiLeaks publishes numerous secret documents that reveal illegal activities by governments and corporations. In 2009, Assange was awarded the Amnesty International Media Award for his work, and Wikileaks has won many more awards in the intervening years.

Villains or crusaders?

3. Revelations about the US military

In April 2010, Wikileaks published a video entitled "Collateral Murder," a recording from a US Army attack helicopter deployed in Baghdad during the Iraq War in 2007. It shows civilians being circled and then shot from the helicopter. Among the victims are two journalists from the Reuters news agency, one of whom was carrying a camera, which the US soldiers apparently mistook for a weapon.

In the same year, WikiLeaks published hundreds of thousands of other secret US military documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which, as Assange said at a press conference in London at the time, proved clear war crimes.

4. The source

The data was provided by Chelsea Manning, then called Bradley Manning, before her gender transition, a US Army soldier analyzing data at the time. Manning was later sentenced to 35 years in prison for espionage and treason but pardoned by then-outgoing US President Barack Obama in 2017.

5. US reaction — part 1

The WikiLeaks publications were extremely embarrassing for the US government, revealing an unvarnished, bloody side of US military action — a side in which war crimes were committed, and covered up, and in which the number of civilian victims was significantly higher than the Pentagon figured.

The US government criticized Assange, saying that as the head of the whistleblowing platform, he has endangered lives by leaking state secrets. In fact, names in the documents were not initially anonymized. Joe Biden, then US vice president, likened Assange to a "high-tech terrorist."

However, for the time being, the US took no action beyond this criticism. An Australian citizen, Assange lived in London and was now considered an investigative journalist. Barack Obama's administration appeared to be of the opinion that criminal prosecution could be interpreted as a sign that journalists from other media outlets could also be prosecuted for publishing sensitive information.

6. Abuse allegations from Sweden

At around the same time, in 2010, it became public knowledge that two Swedish women had accused Assange of sexually harassing them. Later, there was talk of rape. The public prosecutor's office in Stockholm issued a warrant for his arrest and applied for his extradition from the UK. Assange was arrested in London at the end of 2010. He denied the accusations and was released on bail.

A legal tug-of-war began. When the High Court in London granted the Swedish extradition request in 2012, Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was granted political asylum.

7. US reaction — part 2

In June 2016, during the US presidential election campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the "Clinton emails" appeared on WikiLeaks, triggering an investigation by the FBI, which concluded that no charges would be brought. Nevertheless, the affair is now considered to be one of the reasons why Clinton lost to Trump.

Donald Trump praised Wikileaks for the revelations. Under his presidency, the US Justice Department nevertheless charged Assange — but for the 2010 leak. The charge: conspiracy with Chelsea Manning for a hacker attack on Pentagon computers. In addition, there are 17 other charges of espionage and betrayal of secrets.

Assange theoretically faced up to 175 years in prison, and the US duly sought extradition from the UK, while attempts were made to revoke Assange's status as a journalist: It was claimed that he published data without context, and so should be considered a hacker.

Australians relieved over Assange's release: Journalist Joel Dullroy

8. Advocates

Human rights, civil rights and journalism organizations of standing, from Amnesty International to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders, all speak out in support of Assange, arguing that a democracy must be able to tolerate publications such as those from WikiLeaks.

Two journalism umbrella organizations, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), warned in a joint statement that "the persecution of Julian Assange endangers media freedom around the world." EFJ President Maja Sever said in February 2024, "Journalists and their unions have recognized since the outset that Julian Assange is being targeted for carrying out tasks that are the daily work of many journalists — seeking out a whistleblower and exposing criminality. We stand with journalists of every political persuasion and nationality and say that Assange should be freed at once."

9. Prison in London

In 2019, the Ecuadorian government withdrew Julian Assange's political asylum and Ecuadorian citizenship and handed him over to the British police. The authorities accuse him of violating bail conditions by fleeing to the embassy. He is sentenced to 50 weeks in prison and is transferred to the London high-security prison Belmarsh.

A legal tug-of-war over Assange's extradition begins again, this time between the US and Assange's lawyers in the UK. Assange appealed several times. In 2024, the European Court of Human Rights seems to be Assange's last chance.

10. Release

On June 24, after five years in custody in London, Assange is released, having made a deal with the US justice system: The now 52-year-old will plead guilty in a court in the Northern Mariana Islands, an external territory of the US. He will then be sentenced to five years in prison, which he has already served in the UK. In return, he will be spared further imprisonment.

This article was originally written in German.