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The never-ending story of Julian Assange

Darko Janjevic
April 13, 2019

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange first grabbed headlines by leaking US military secrets in 2010 and has remained the center of a global controversy ever since. DW brings you a look at what led up to his dramatic arrest.

Julian Assange talks to Moscow conference via video link in 2016
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Voskresenskiy

UK police arrested Julian Assange on April 11, 2019 after the onetime hacker spent nearly seven years inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The WikiLeaks co-founder is now set to fight a US extradition warrant based on a hacking charge. Helping to hack into a Pentagon computer network, however, is only a small part of the nearly decade-long saga surrounding the controversial activist.

Convicted hacker

Assange was born in Australia in 1971. He has said he moved across the country often during his childhood, allegedly attending 37 different schools. He first developed an interest in hacking as a teenager and was convicted of hacking-related offenses in 1995. He has studied in three different Australian universities, but did not complete a degree.

After working as a digital security consultant and researcher, he spearheaded the founding of the now-famous WikiLeaks platform in 2006. The platform is dedicated to anonymously publishing important information.

Wanted over pledge to Manning

The platform gained worldwide attention in 2010 by publishing military documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as US diplomatic correspondence. Among other sensitive information, the documents showed that US-led forces killed hundreds of civilians up to that point in the Afghan conflict and indicated that the US officials ignored reports of Iraqi authorities torturing prisoners.

The first high-profile release showed a US Apache helicopter killing over a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters employees, and wounding at least two children in Baghdad.

According to the US indictment against Assange, the WikiLeaks chief had been in personal contact with whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who had been providing the platform with military documents. In March 2010, less than a month before the Baghdad video was published, Assange had allegedly agreed to help Manning cover up her tracks. Prosecutors claim he pledged to help her break a password which would allow her to log into the classified Pentagon network as a different user. This "conspiracy to commit computer intrusion" forms the base for the US extradition warrant on Assange.

Obama commutes Chelsea Manning sentence

Rape charges in Sweden

In the summer of 2010, soon after the WikiLeaks release on the Afghan war, Assange visited Stockholm and met with two women. The women subsequently filed claims that Assange raped them, prompting Swedish prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant. Assange claims that both sexual encounters were consensual.

In December 2010, Assange turned himself into the police in London. However, he also pledged to fight extradition to Sweden, expressing concern that Washington was pressuring Stockholm over his arrest and that the US officials intended to eventually have him extradited to the US.

He was released on bail and fought the extradition order all the way to the UK Supreme Court, but lost his appeal in May 2012. He jumped bail in June of the same year and sought refuge in Ecuador's London embassy, where he spent the next seven years.

Julian Assange in a police van
Assange was dragged out of the embassy building after seven yearsImage: Reuters/H. Nicholls

UN panel sides with Assange

Ecuador approved Assange's asylum status and eventually granted him citizenship, entering an uneasy standoff with the US and the UK authorities. For the next three years, the UK police maintained round-the-clock surveillance of the embassy in order to prevent Assange from leaving the building.

A movie about Assange, The Fifth Estate, was published in 2013. The role of Assange was played by British star Benedict Cumberbatch.

What Does "The Fifth Estate" Reveal about WikiLeaks?

In late 2015, a UN panel ruled that the WikiLeaks founder had been arbitrarily detained since 2010 and should be set free and compensated. Both the UK and Swedish authorities rejected the non-binding conclusion.

Tipping the scales for Trump?

WikiLeaks once again claimed center stage in US politics during the tense election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, when it released a trove of hacked emails written by Democratic Party officials. The emails contained embarrassing discoveries for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. US officials believe the data was obtained by hackers working on behalf of Russia.

Assange has denied Russia was the source.

Years later, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen claimed that Assange personally talked to Trump's aide Roger Stone and notified him of an incoming email leak.

Breaking up with Ecuador

Ecuador has faced pressure over Assange from London and from Washington, and the activist's relationship with the Ecuadorian government has sharply deterioratedsince current President Lenin Moreno took power in May 2017. Moreno has slammed Assange as a "pebble in the shoe" and a problem he had inherited from his predecessor, mulling ways to overcome the standoff. In March 2019, Moreno blamed Assange's WikiLeaks for embarrassing photos and documents about the president and his family published on an anonymous website. The material includes images of Moreno eating lobster in bed and enjoying expensive vacations in Europe while trying to push through an austerity drive at home.

In April 2019, the South American country revoked his asylum status, allowing the British police to enter the embassy and physically remove the activist from the premises. The government in Quito also arrested an IT expert connected to WikiLeaks in Ecuador, claiming that the platform has meddled in its domestic politics.

Assange now sits in British jail for violating bail terms. In addition to the US hacking charge, he might face a renewed inquiry from Sweden. All rape charges against Assange were dropped in 2017 due to his being unavailable to Swedish authorities, but both the lawyers for his alleged victims and dozens of British politicians have urged an extradition to Sweden.