Espionage, extradition and Wikileaks: The rise and fall of Julian Assange

The Wikileaks founder could avoid prosecution by the United States after Joe Biden said he is 'considering' a request from Australia to drop charges.

By Rachel Dixon, ITV News Multimedia Producer

A plane believed to be carrying WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange landed in Bangkok on Tuesday, as he is on the way to enter a plea deal with the US government that will free him and resolve the legal case that spanned years and continents over the publication of a trove of classified documents.

Assange, an Australian citizen, has received support from Canberra for a number of years, with the country’s government making repeated calls for the US to cease efforts to prosecute.

Now, it appears Assange could finally be about to escape Washington’s attempts to charge him with breaches under the American espionage act.

The Wikileaks founder has always divided opinion and is seen by some as the figurehead of free speech, after he published documents which exposed wrongdoing by organisations, including governments and the US army.

But in the US he has been declared an “enemy of the state” and to others he is viewed as a dangerous hacker who put people’s lives at risk.

A litany of court cases and accusations, from espionage charges to sexual abuse claims, have followed Assange around for nearly 15 years.

Assange has been forced into hiding for many years to avoid extradition, while his wife, Stella Assange, has previously warned her husband “will die” if he is sent to the US.

Here, ITV News explains how Assange went from a high-profile hacker to a prisoner.

Who is Julian Assange?

Even Assange’s childhood in Australia is shrouded in mystery and conspiracy.

His shock of white hair has led many people to believe he grew up in doomsday cult, The Family, which followed leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s every word.

She allegedly forced followers, including children, to take dangerous amounts of LSD and other hallucinogens as part of prolonged initiation ceremonies, one survivor told The Guardian in 2016.

Assange quickly became an accomplished computer hacker, and aged 20 he led a group which repeatedly worked their way into Australia’s National University’s computer systems.

US prosecutors want to put Assange on trial on criminal charges. / Credit: PA

The rise of WikiLeaks

Assange’s hacking led to the creation of notorious website Wikileaks in 2006 – the platform he and his associates used to publish classified information.

His exposés started with documents allegedly showing tax evasion by clients of Swiss bank Julius Baer.

Wikileaks gained global notoriety in 2010, when Assange released over 391,000 unredacted reports which covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009.

This included Assange’s first headline hitting video, which showed a US airstrike in Baghdad that killed 18 people, including civilians and two Reuters journalists, during the Iraq war, filmed from a helicopter cockpit.

Some of the war files were reportedly passed to him by US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, on a CD she disguised as a collection of Lady Gaga songs.

The files, which were also published extensively by the Guardian, listed civilian deaths, torture of enemy fighters by the US, and evidence American special forces hunted down Taliban leaders for “kill or capture” without trial.

He then leaked thousands of messages between US diplomats, including Hilary Clinton.

His actions were said to have prompted the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, plus uprisings across five countries, including in Libya where dictator Colonel Gaddafi was ousted and killed.

Lady Gaga with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. / Credit: ITV File pics /

Assange goes into hiding

While many hailed his leaks as fighting for free speech, Assange faced huge criticism for putting people’s lives at risk, as the unredacted files revealed the names of local Afghans and Iraqis who passed information to US forces.

Opinion also began to turn against Assange, after two women from Sweden alleged he sexually assaulted them during a trip to speak at a conference in the country.

He spent seven years inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, after being granted political asylum, to avoid extradition to Sweden to face the courts for the claims.

Assange has always denied the allegations and in 2019 Sweden dropped its investigation because too much time had elapsed since the accusation was made.

He continued to hide in the embassy, fearing he would be extradited to the US to face 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse.

While hiding out, Assange had a number of high profile guests and supporters, including pop superstar Lady Gaga, Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson, and the late fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

Baywatch actor Pamela Anderson wore a blanket covered in messages of support for Mr Assange, when she visited him in Belmarsh prison. / Credit: PA

Where is Assange now?

Assange had been in London’s Belmarsh prison since he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy by police in 2019 for breaching his bail conditions.

In March, the High Court in London ruled that Assange could not be extradited to the US on espionage charges unless American authorities guarantee that he will not receive the death penalty.

He’s now expected to plead guilty to an Espionage Act charge of conspiring to unlawfully obtain and disseminate classified national defense information, according to the US Justice Department in a letter filed in court.

Assange is expected to return to his home country of Australia after his plea and sentencing.

The hearing is taking place in Saipan, the largest island in the Northern Marianas, because of Assange’s opposition to traveling to the continental US and the court’s proximity to Australia, prosecutors said.

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